Despite assurances from metro Atlanta leaders that they are better prepared to handle severe winter weather, the Georgia Department of Transportation was taken by surprise by Friday’s icy commute.
It took GDOT more than two hours after 5 a.m. reports of slippery roads on I-20 to arrive with trucks to treat the black ice. In the meantime, there were more than a dozen accidents, and the department’s pre-treatment system went unused.
Friday’s commuting woes were minor compared to last year’s January storm, in which residents spent a memorable day and night stuck on the roads, in their offices or in the homes of strangers as the region quickly descended into gridlockalypse. But the slow response to such a minor incident calls into question the new preparedness that leaders are preaching.
A GDOT spokeswoman said crews had not been prepared because the National Weather Service had not predicted icy conditions. The delay in treatment, she said, came because of the time it takes to get crews from their homes to maintenance offices, then out to the troubled areas.
Steve Nelson, the National Weather Service’s science and operations officer, acknowledged that the agency did not inform state officials of possible black ice at a weekly briefing Thursday morning. But he said notices went out at 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Thursday and 2 a.m. Friday that said conditions could be hazardous in parts of the state.
“It seems like 80 percent of the time when things don’t go right, it’s not that the forecast was bad, it’s a communication issue,” Nelson said.
Last year, the failures of leaders snowballed as poor communication and inadequate preparation led to disaster. Students were stranded in schools and on buses. Grocery stores became makeshift shelters.
Over the course of the year, state agencies and school districts, led by a winter weather task force appointed by the governor, say they havetaken a series of steps to ensure the results are different in the future. The changes include better technology, more equipment and improved communication, they said. And Gov. Nathan Deal’s budget proposal includes $304,000 in additional funds for four emergency management positions backed by the weather task force.
“We’re building connectivity,” said Bart Gobeil, the state’s chief operating officer and head of the task force. “We’ve learned. We’re better prepared than we have been in the past.”
But the preparations, on Friday, fell short. Though the state and many local areas now have brine for treating the roads — a salt-water mixture that can be applied 24 hours ahead of snow or ice — it was not used.
In an interview before the incident, GDOT state maintenance engineer Dale Brantley said for the first time, the brine would allow GDOT to treat the roads before bad weather happened. The department also has spent millions of dollars on new equipment, including more than a dozen road-temperature censors. It has coordinated with outside agencies, like the University of Georgia, that have weather stations that can help keep track of on-the-ground conditions.
Nelson, with the National Weather Service, said one ground sensor in DeKalb County showed freezing temperatures shortly before 5 a.m., even while air temperatures were higher. A Hazardous Weather Outlook the service sent Thursday at 5:30 p.m. said there could be “isolated slick spots on elevated surfaces for the morning rush hour” because temperatures were expected to fall below freezing.
Additionally, Channel 2 Action News Chief Meteorologist Glenn Burns — a member of the task force — said he forecast black ice beginning at the 5 p.m. newscast, and through the evening.
“They dropped the ball completely, I believe,” Burns said of GDOT’s response. “I’m just flabbergasted. It’s their job to watch the weather.”
On Twitter, metro Atlantans complained that highways weren’t salted and called the response a “classic refreeze scenario.”
That wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Earlier this month, Brantley, with GDOT, said more dump trucks were on the way to replace aging vehicles and the department had made strides.
“We have come a long way,” Brantley said. “I feel like we’ve got a good plan we’ve worked out.”
If all the region’s traffic hits the roads at the same time, he said, there are no guarantees that the additional measures will keep the same issues from surfacing. But the department has done a great deal of preparation and training throughout the last year, he said. Procedures have changed so that plowing and clearing starts in the metro region and pushes out. School systems, which sometimes found they could not get students home, said they plan to monitor weather reports closely.
Gobeil, the task force leader, said the state is now better connected to meteorologists, who can keep officials apprised of potential weather events. Communication to the public is a priority, both via the Emergency Alert System and other means, Gobeil said. He also said in the event of a future road emergency, patrols will be sent to traditional bottlenecks to keep roads clear. Tractor-trailers, which last year jackknifed and caused lane closures, will be moved to staging areas away from the highways.
More electronic signs will be added to interstates to keep drivers up-to-date about weather and road condition.
One of the failings in 2014, Atlanta chief operating officer Mike Geisler said, was the unwillingness of leaders to take quick, decisive action. In the future, he said, Atlanta will be a leader on that front.
“At this point, a senior executive in the city is in a position to make an announcement much quicker,” he said.
Georgia’s Emergency Management Agency also now has a new leader, ex-Georgia National Guard head Jim Butterworth, who took the reins on Monday. Butterworth said he’s spent parts of the last year working on committees to hammer out new weather policy.
He said some of the smaller changes could have a big impact.
“Hope is not a plan,” said Butterworth. “We’ve been planning for a long time, and we’ll be ready for the next event. And I do believe that we’re going to work as hard as we can to get to a perfect response. I don’t know if we’ll get there, but we’ll try.”
AJC reporters Mike Morris and Greg Bluestein contributed to this article
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