» Get answers from our PolitiFact Georgia team as they examine claims by Gov. Deal and GEMA chief Charley English.
» See hundreds of photos from the storm, including aerial views and reader-submitted images.
» Watch a video timelapse of Google’s traffic map and see how the roads clogged so quickly.
» Read more about the small acts of heroism displayed by your Atlanta neighbors.
Gov. Nathan Deal has gone to great lengths to show he and his staff weren’t asleep at the wheel as Tuesday’s snowstorm ground Atlanta to an icy standstill. But documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution raise concerns about how seriously top leaders initially took the weather.
The governor kicked off Tuesday morning at a Georgia tourism gala at the statehouse with a picture of a green-frocked Scarlett O'Hara and a gaggle of smiling lawmakers. He ended the night with a chilly press conference alongside Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed defending the government's lackluster response to the storm.
Now he faces an avalanche of criticism from rival politicians looking to unseat him in November and shell-shocked drivers infuriated that a few inches of snow created a disaster. Deal has apologized for the uncoordinated response that unleashed a flood of motorists onto Atlanta’s highways, though critics say his call for a review of emergency procedures isn’t enough.
‘So it is starting’
National forecasters had warned Saturday afternoon of the threat of icy weather across a swath of the Southeast, although some meteorologists predicted the brunt of the snow would fall south of the city. Just before 7 p.m. Monday, the National Weather Service updated warnings with a “significant” storm on a crash-course for the Southeast.
As the storm front barreled in on Atlanta, Deal signed an executive order Monday evening banning businesses from gouging prices on propane. His staff was growing increasingly concerned about the weather. Chris Riley, Deal’s top aide, dispatched a note to Charley English, the state’s emergency management guru, a few minutes after 3 p.m. seeking an update.
“Everyone keeps trying to tell me how bad the weather is going to be but I keep saying if the weather was going to be bad, Charley would have called me and he hasn’t,” Riley wrote to English, who heads the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. Within minutes, English was on the phone with him.
Deal’s aides say the governor was updated on the incoming weather through the evening. Yet there was no official action in the hours after the National Weather Service’s warning at 3:38 a.m. that a winter storm was headed straight for the city.
The governor said no one woke him up to alert him of the warning, a task that is generally left to the emergency agency, and that he only learned of it when he arrived at his office at 7:30 a.m. Riley, who arrived at the office about an hour before Deal, told him of the weather alert and summoned English to brief the governor in person.
That didn’t happen until around 9 a.m., said English, who later apologized for his slow response to the worsening conditions. At 10:44 a.m. he was concerned enough to send a dispatch to the governor’s office warning that troopers were already reporting wrecks in west Georgia.
“So it is starting,” he wrote.
He wouldn’t open his command center until hours later.
Photo opps and a gala
Deal stuck to the day’s schedule. He appeared at the tourism announcement at the state Capitol rotunda at 9 a.m. and popped in and out of photo opps with statehouse visitors over the next two hours. Shortly after 10 a.m., he inked an executive order giving state departments leeway to close early. By then, of course, thousands of employees were at work.
In some cases, it took hours for the orders to trickle down to state workers. Superintendent John Barge, who is challenging Deal in the GOP primary, said he received an email at 12:23 p.m. advising leaders to “allow liberal leave and/or unscheduled leave to employees.” He had earlier told his staffers to stay off the roads.
That very minute, records show Riley warned the governor’s staff of the same impending storm. “If you feel you need to leave now to ensure safe travel home, please do so,” he wrote.
As the first snowflakes fell, at 12:30 p.m., Deal was at a Ritz-Carlton ballroom a mile to the north at a banquet honoring Georgia Trend magazine’s most influential Georgians. His task was to introduce Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who took the podium to praise the governor’s leadership. Outside, the gridlock began.
The magnitude of that traffic jam came to light as Deal and his entourage left the ballroom at 1:15 p.m. to return to the statehouse. It took them an hour to travel about a half-dozen city blocks. He was lucky: It took one of the gala’s organizers 10 hours to return to Dunwoody from the hotel.
An ‘unexpected storm’
Deal returned to the statehouse at 2:15 p.m. and his staff hunkered down to try to get a grip on the mess outside. A school choice rally that afternoon was canceled, as were meetings with several lawmakers. Emails show Riley pressing English for more details on the growing crisis. By 4 p.m., the traffic was so maddening that Deal’s aides were in damage-control mode.
When English was asked whether he would open government Wednesday, he responded that there were too many cars still on the road to get rid of the ice, but added a hopeful note: “Thankfully no power outages yet. Still not freezing in Macon-Savannah yet but it’s coming.”
Riley made the call to shut down state government until noon Wednesday, and Deal spokesman Brian Robinson tweeted word at 5:20 p.m. that the governor had declared a weather-related emergency for all 159 counties. Tens of thousands of drivers were stranded on roads, and schools were preparing to bunk students whose parents couldn’t reach them.
Deal’s aides said that throughout the manic afternoon they were consulting with transportation analysts, law enforcement and public safety workers about the response.
After 5 p.m., emails from English appeared to decline, and output from the governor’s office ticked up. Riley’s office suite on the Capitol’s second floor became an impromptu command center, and state staffers scurried in and out. Around that time, the governor ordered state troopers to assign an officer to each school that would house students overnight.
At 7:59 p.m. traffic was showing no signs of letting up and national media had turned Atlanta into a laughingstock. Riley expressed worry about the next day’s commute with plunging temperatures re-freezing the slush on the road. “The last thing we need is state employees placed in harm’s way on the roads trying to get to work.”
Erin Hames, the governor’s education guru, had been given responsibility for pushing school districts for details on stranded students, and she sent a flurry of emails seeking data. Bart Gobeil, the chief operating officer, was tasked with coordinating with Georgia State Patrol to clear school buses from roads.
“Twist away,” he wrote to a colonel who suggested a harder tack was needed to get wreckers on the roads.
Around 11:20 p.m., the governor stood for a press conference alongside Reed in one of the testiest moments of his administration. He opened with this:
“As you know, we have been confronted with an unexpected storm that has hit the metropolitan area.”
It wasn’t long before he was walking back those words.