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Atlanta prepared for Super Bowl, yet unexpected always awaits metro area

Last Tuesday, Atlanta’s top leaders and public safety officials struck a confident and commanding tone as they gathered in police headquarters to tout their readiness for the Super Bowl.

“We have been preparing for this for a solid two years,” said Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields. “We are so ready for the event.”

But within hours of the Tuesday gathering, a series of incidents highlighted how quickly things can spin beyond civic leaders’ control in the sprawling metro area. That night, a member of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ security detail was off-duty at a gas station just southwest of downtown when he fatally shot a teenager who tried to steal his unmarked police car. A couple of hours later, a MARTA train derailed near Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, disrupting travelers for days.

And Friday brought to close a week that saw Hartsfield-Jackson with headline-grabbing wait times as fresh worries surfaced about how the protracted partial government shutdown could impact Atlanta’s ability to handle the big game.

“It’s my hope that it ends very quickly,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said of the shutdown.

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The city of Atlanta has seldom seen a spotlight as bright as the one that is about to roll into town as part of Super Bowl 53. There were the 1993 and 2000 Super Bowls as well as the 1996 Olympics, but those events were before the era of social media, where a moment of civic shame captured by a smartphone can ricochet around the globe in an instant.

In recent years, a debilitating ice storm, a devastating interstate bridge inferno and a crippling power outage that shutdown the world’s busiest airport for half a day, vividly illustrated the fragile nature of Atlanta’s overloaded infrastructure.

Still, Atlanta leaders say they have spent months, if not years, preparing and will be ready for the big game. They’ve traveled to Super Bowls in other cities to learn how they can make things operate smoothly and avoid possible snafus. They’ve embarked on public information campaigns encouraging the use of public transportation. And they’ve loaded up on extra road salt in case of ice.

All in all, the city has dedicated nearly $15 million for the preparations, which includes funds for police overtime, consulting services and supplies.

“We are very honored to host this event that will be watched by the entire world,” the mayor said on Tuesday.

Both the mayor and her police chief seemed to acknowledge that preparation has its limits.

“I would say that my greatest heartburn is the weather and traffic,” Chief Shields said. “We tend to struggle when we get inclement weather.”

Gary Stokan, who runs the Peach Bowl and sits on a Super Bowl advisory board, said the fact that the NFL chose Atlanta was a strong vote of confidence that should put people at ease.

“The NFL would not go to a city that couldn’t fully prepare and pull off an event like this,” said Stokan. “We have the world’s most efficient and effective airport. You have the 13,000 hotel rooms in downtown within walking distance to the facilities. You have MARTA where people get around and get to the game.”

A different approach

Community leaders credit the 1996 Olympics for transforming Atlanta into an international city. Then came Super Bowl 34 in 2000. Each event marked a test for city hospitality. Both were marred by acts of violence.

A week into the the Olympics, Eric Rudolph, a former air force specialist, detonated three pipe bombs during a jubilant evening in Centennial Olympic Park, killing one person and injuring more than 100 others.

Shields said that law enforcement’s security approach has changed dramatically in the two decades since the bombing.

“We hadn’t even had September 11th,” Shields said. “We are in such a different space … So much of what we rely on is the intelligence, the data gathering.”

To that end, the city’s police department is opening an joint operations center on January 26 that will include representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, state law enforcement, MARTA, and Georgia Power.

“This is so that communication is rapid and immediate,” Shields said.

The last time the city hosted a Super Bowl in 2000 an ice storm the weekend before the Super Bowl knocked out power to 300,000 homes and businesses and caused concerns the week leading up to the game. Then, another lesser storm caused additional disruptions. One of the teams even canceled practice the Saturday before the game.

But it was a violent episode that nearly overshadowed the contest itself. Just hours after the St. Louis Rams defeated the Tennessee Titans with a last-second tackle near the goalline, a deadly knife fight in Buckhead left two men dead, damaged the reputation of NFL star Ray Lewis and helped reshape nightlife in the city.

No one was convicted of the crime. But the murders helped lead to a reckoning in the neighborhood that was the epicenter of the city’s night life.

“That incident was the culmination of a lot of things going on up there,” said Joseph Spillane, who in January 2000 had just been named the major in charge of the zone that includes Buckhead. “It kind of woke up the city.”

Stricter liquor laws went on the books, prohibiting all-night bars and the heavy concentration of drinking establishments. The crackdown disbursed revelry in the city.

“It spread out to other areas,” said Spillane, who is now Georgia State University’s Police Chief. “The fact that it was disbursed to various areas made it a lot easier to manage because you don’t have a huge group of people going to one area for the purpose of hanging out and drinking.”

Much of the once-thriving Buckhead bar scene was bulldozed in 2007.

A super ice storm

Despite the confidence of the city’s current leadership and their partners, recent events raise concerns about Atlanta’s contingency planning.

In late January, 2014, a mere two inches of snow paralyzed the city. Traffic came to a stand still. Children spent the night in schools. Frustrated motorists abandoned their cars.

Atlanta became a punchline across the country, as late night talk show hosts mocked the city for its inability to cope with a significant, but manageable weather event.

With those memories still fresh in mind, city and community leaders are preparing for hundreds of thousands of visitors, partly by urging everyone to stay off the roads if possible. Karen Bremer, CEO of the Georgia Restaurant Association, said her organization has been working on scheduling with restaurant vendors to make food and liquor deliveries between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m. when traffic is lightest.

“We are crossing our fingers that this is a snow-free Super Bowl,” Bremer said.

Midtown Alliance, a non-profit coalition of businesses and community leaders, and the Atlanta Regional Commission conducted a public information campaign to encourage locals to use public transportation during the week leading up to the game.

As a part of that campaign, the two organizations handed out 500 passes that are good for 10 free MARTA rides, said Brian Carr, the director of marketing and communications for the Alliance.

But MARTA hasn’t always been the answer to Atlanta’s traffic congestion. In fact, the agency failed in spectacular fashion last year when the city most needed it.

After the 2018 college football national championship game, downtown’s Five Points MARTA station descended into hours of chaos. The platforms became so crowded that people couldn’t exit the trains. One train took 22 minutes to depart.

The transit agency blamed inadequate staffing, poor communication and ineffective crowd control for the disaster.

In the months after, MARTA hired 40 additional officers to staff up for the Super Bowl, held numerous exercises to simulate overcrowding, severe weather and service disruptions and repeatedly reassured the public that it will be prepared for the Super Bowl. But last week’s derailment on the MARTA line near the airport, an incident that took days before service around was restored to normal, was a reminder that a single misstep can have far-reaching impact on the system.

Mass exodus Monday

Visitors are expected to arrive in waves over the course of a ten-day period starting later this week.

Even if the city makes it through Super Bowl Sunday without any problems, following Monday could present a new set of challenges.

Between 110,000 and 115,000 travelers are expected to depart from the airport on that day. If those projections hold, it will shatter the record for the number of travelers that have departed from Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in a single day. The current record is 93,082.

“It’s what we call mass exodus Monday,” said Bottoms.

If the federal government shutdown continues, passengers could be standing in line for a while.

Federal Transportation Security Administration officers have not been paid during the shutdown. Some have called in sick because they lack funds for childcare and transportation. The absences were blamed for two-hour security lines last Monday. The TSA brought in out-of-town staff later in the week, but there were still long lines.

On Tuesday, Sen. Johnny Isakson voiced concern on the Senate floor about the impact the shutdown could have on Atlanta. He called the Super Bowl the biggest tourism event in the world.

“What if the largest airport in the world, that’s going to bring people to the largest football game in the world, goes out of business because the TSA strikes?” he said.

The enormity of what it means to host the Super Bowl struck Mayor Bottoms when she and other city officials traveled to the game in Minneapolis last year. It was her first month in office.

“I nearly had an anxiety attack,” she said, but during the trip she quickly learned about the planning Atlanta had been making long before she became mayor.

“I was able to get my nerves together.”

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