Leadership failures left Atlanta in chaos

Staff writers Danny Robbins, Bill Torpy, James Salzer and Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

Since Tuesday’s snow storm, Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters have been grilling public officials and poring through government documents, seeking answers as to why 2.6 inches of snow put Atlanta in chaos. For this story, a team of reporters interviewed state officials, county leaders, local police chiefs, emergency management experts and drivers who suffered through the traffic crisis. The reporters found that, ultimately, a failure at the highest levels of state government was to blame.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s delay in taking charge during Tuesday’s snow catastrophe triggered a series of cascading failures, leaving hundreds of thousands of motorists abandoned and desperate for food, water and shelter.

With no one at the helm, dozens of local agencies took their own myopic approaches, barely communicating with each other, much less the imperiled public.

The state’s multi-million dollar electronic sign system flashed useless messages at trapped drivers. The state’s mobile app, which is supposed to give up-to-the-minute updates on road conditions, gave wrong information about road clearing. Police stood by as cars blocked intersections. Calls to 911 were answered by an automated “all circuits are busy” message.

“We kept waiting and waiting, and I was thinking, ‘Surely someone is going to send a plow or help,’” said Renae Parent, who got stuck on a sheet of ice on the downtown connector trying to return from Sandy Springs to her Grant Park home.

After several hours, she said, two police officers walked up along the shoulder of the road to look at the cars spinning their wheels on the ice.

“They shook their heads and walked away,” Parent said.

Consider it metro Atlanta’s slap in the face: Last week’s snowstorm laid bare a $32.6 million state emergency management system incapable of dealing with a run-of-the mill weather event, much less a major disaster. Power to trigger that system rests with the governor, who waited hours to act. No one else has both the legal and political muscle to take control.

Deal well knows what ice can do to Atlanta. He was inaugurated in a crippling ice storm in 2011, and the first executive order he signed declared a state of emergency for that storm.

But state-level leaders failed to plan adequately for the same type of weather event that has paralyzed the region time and again.

Millions of dollars poured into a regional initiative that, among other things, made plans to evacuate mass numbers of people in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist strike, but state officials devised no strategy to handle gridlock caused by winter weather.

They failed to carefully analyze information from the weather service, and then make decisive judgment calls.

Then, in the thick of disaster Tuesday, Deal and other state leaders failed to improvise — a necessity in emergency situations.

The governor didn’t activate the National Guard until nearly midnight, when school children already had been stranded on buses for more than eight hours.

“Another event like this, and people will lose confidence that they’re living in a city that’s safe,” said retired Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, who led federal response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Deal, assuming blame under relentless criticism, has promised a top-to-bottom review of what went wrong. He pledged the same thing three years ago.

“I think we did not respond fast enough,” he said last week. “We did not respond in the magnitude at an early enough time to be able to avoid some of these consequences.”

Questions raised by Snowjam 2014 — or whatever we call it — go beyond reading weather warnings and deciding when to send out sand-spreaders, though.

If Atlanta’s emergency system can’t handle 2.6 inches of afternoon snow, how could it ever withstand a more serious crisis, such as a chemical spill or a terrorist attack?

For that matter, what if it snows again?

Who’s in charge?

The leadership breakdown started well before the first snowflakes fell, even though weather forecasters issued a winter storm warning in the wee morning hours.

No one saw fit to wake the governor to tell him.

Later, with snow already falling on the outskirts of the metro area, emails to and from the governor’s office, obtained by the AJC through an open records request, show Deal and his aides hanging back, with more focus on his circle of staffers than the general public.

That morning, he attended a tourism event at the state Capitol, unveiling a new “Gone With The Wind”-themed Georgia travel guide. He posed for a photo with Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler.

Meanwhile, Charley English, his Georgia Emergency Management Agency director, sent a note on Tuesday at 10:44 a.m. that troopers were reporting wrecks in northeast Georgia: “So it is starting.”

Deal was preparing to head to the downtown Ritz-Carlton hotel for a Georgia Trend luncheon, where Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was being honored as Georgian of the Year. At one point during the meal, Deal commented, “It’s really coming down out there,” according to the event emcee.

At 12:23 p.m., Deal’s chief of staff, Chris Riley, sent a note to governor’s staffers urging them to plan their routes home: “If you feel you need to leave now to ensure safe travel home, please do so.”

About that time, snow began to fall in metro Atlanta. Traffic “went from free flow to gridlock in approximately 1.5 hours,” said Georgia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Natalie Dale.

Yet the governor would not sign a state of emergency until more than five hours later.

By then, many were begging for someone to take command.

At 5:41 p.m., emails show, state officials received a plea from Tom Weyandt, the Atlanta mayor’s transportation guru:

“We are severely under-resourced — and the state is basically letting us alone …”

Some motorists already had spent hours inching along gridlocked highways, without clear information or authority figures to provide direction.

Police officers were too busy responding to wrecks and other emergencies to attempt to direct traffic.

Along the treacherous commute between the Perimeter Mall employment center and the Cobb County suburbs, law enforcement officials had no choice but to make their own calls.

Dunwoody Police Chief Billy Grogan saw no point having officers direct traffic along Hammond Drive and Ashford Dunwoody Road, where motorists blocked key intersections, waiting to reach I-285.

“If we put 10 officers out at 10 intersections directing traffic, there’s no traffic to direct,” the chief said. “You have a finite number of resources, and you have to use your resources the best you can.”

Grogan said he also saw little use in communicating with other jurisdictions between Dunwoody and Cobb to help the flow of traffic. He knew I-75 northbound, I-285 westbound and Ga. 400 northbound were all totally gridlocked.

“It’s not like it was a singular event somewhere,” he said.

Parent, the stranded motorist, was desperate for guidance on what to do as she tried to get home to Atlanta. A state Department of Transportation highway sign offered no direction about whether she should exit the highway and take a side street. Radio told her simply that traffic was gridlocked, something she already knew.

Motorists could only rely on one another. While she was stuck underneath the 17th Street bridge on the downtown connector, a group of drivers banded together and, by shoving spare cardboard under car wheels, began pushing cars up the incline and off the ice.

And as hours passed, and still no one came to help, families hunkered down in cold cars to wait out the night. Parent’s drive, normally 30 minutes, took 12 hours.

Paltry preparations, hampered response

The governor’s slow response wasted valuable time when he could have used his bully pulpit, signalling the public to stay home and off the roads.

“In the absence of any kind of authority telling people what to do, they will tend to go about their regular business because their children are in school and workplaces are open,” said Joanne Nigg, former director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware.

“Had the governor come out when the storm had started in earnest and said, ‘Stay off the roads,’ people would be more likely to listen,” Nigg said.

The delay was also critical to the GEMA, which has more than 100 employees and reports to Deal.

“The whole thing is to stay ahead of this stuff,” said Brian Wolshon, a professor of transportation and environmental engineering at Louisiana State University. “Once it starts, you’re trying to come back from a 40-point deficit in the fourth quarter. At that point, you’re really fighting from behind.”

GEMA spokesman Ken Davis said the agency followed an 11-page snow and ice appendix added to its statewide emergency plan after the 2011 storm. It offers checklists for state agencies in dealing with the same kind of snowbound disaster, but with no guidance for traffic gridlock should snow fall in the middle of a work day.

He also said GEMA “absolutely” coordinated with all state agencies in the midst of the storm.

But representatives of various state agencies weren’t at the state operations center. Nor was there coordination with the business community and school systems.

“Ultimately the leaders of various entities are still going to have to make the call for their sector. It’s a really complex issue,” Davis said.

And the first “planned operation period,” which puts GEMA officials on 12-hour shifts, wasn’t started until 5 p.m., the spokesman said.

Only five to seven of the 15 agency representatives were there. By Wednesday afternoon, 11 of the 15 agencies were at the table.

Meanwhile, it seems everyone who ventured out Tuesday faced their own nightmare.

Russell Spies left the Windward Parkway area at 2:15 p.m. for the drive home to East Cobb. Six hours later, he reached downtown Roswell, a trip that normally takes 20 minutes.

Spies abandoned his car and walked the last 5 ½ miles to his pregnant wife and 3- year-old. A 35-minute trip had taken 9 ½ hours.

“I didn’t see any police directing traffic. It was pretty much a free-for-all,” the Chicagoan said. “And I never saw a salt truck anywhere.”

Self-inflicted wounds

The increasing balkanization of the 10-county metro area no doubt compounded Tuesday’s mess. Ninety locally elected governments, with more on the drawing board, make it nearly impossible to effectively plan for a region-wide emergency, let alone react once a storm hits, critics say.

“It’s a regional problem. No one has taken a regional solution to solve it,” said Bill Byrne, former Cobb County Commission chairman.

While Deal ultimately bears responsibility for ensuring the state’s response to a natural disaster, hundreds of politicians with myriad agendas, many loathe to tout the benefits of government involvement, complicate decision-making. About 65 mayors and more than 350 city council members, for example, help run the region’s governments, according to an AJC analysis.

“Atlanta should have grown to be one big city with efficiency,” said Phillip Beard who chairs Buford’s commission. “It’s hard to get them all pulling in one direction.”

Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves decried the lack of inter-jurisdictional cohesion three years ago when the ice storm shut down the region for a week.

Traffic problems were exacerbated, Eaves added, by the sheer number of agencies trying to solve them. Four new cities formed in Fulton in the last decade. The county could tally 15 municipalities by year’s end.

“I think that’s the missing piece – some kind of coordinated strategy,” Eaves said. “Hopefully, this will serve as a wake-up call.”

Cobb’s Byrne isn’t certain the region’s leaders learned a lesson.

“After this,” he said, “they’ll spend the next few weeks and you won’t hear anything else until the next time it happens.”

Ultimate accountability

State leaders had an opportunity to plan for such a weather-induced traffic catastrophe. Metro Atlanta has received roughly $100 million from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for anti-terrorism training and equipment, as well as disaster planning.

The so-called Urban Area Security Initiative, composed of five counties and the city of Atlanta, now receives $5 million a year, according to program Administrator Julia Janka. Its goals include figuring out ways to evacuate people in case of terrorist attacks or natural disasters. Janka said planning for a snowstorm could fall under its purview, if a state official had pressed for it.

The risks were known. As early as 2002, the Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency ranked traffic-snarling winter weather as the greatest potential hazard, ahead of a passenger plane crash, fire, flood or terrorism.

Yet, even what planning the state had was lacking, according to a 2012 report by the Inspector General for Homeland Security. Scrutizing Georgia’s emergency preparation efforts between 2008 and 2010, the IG reported that GEMA “did not have an effective way to measure or assess overall state capabilities and emergency preparedness.”

Ultimately, the power to handle a disaster that crosses jurisdictions falls to the governor.

“The buck starts and stops with him,” said Steve Anthony, a top aide to former Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy, a Democrat, who now teaches at Georgia State University. “The state has to listen to him. While he isn’t technically over DOT, they listen. The same with a lot of local governments. They are wise to listen and follow what he is saying.”

John Weigant, head of the Center on the American Governor at Rutgers University, said even governors who have relatively weak constitutional power have the bully pulpit in times of crisis.

“It can make or break careers,” Weigant said. “Even a weak governor can be commander and comforter in chief.”