El Niño tries to steal Christmas

It’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together in metro Atlanta this Christmas, so long as your sleigh has an amphibious mode and air conditioning.

Nobody was dreaming of a Christmas like this — a soggy, muggy mess where a day of heavy rains left roads impassable, rail lines canceled, backyards brimming with rain, and some people running three sump pumps to keep out the water.

If that doesn’t beat all, this is expected to be the warmest Christmas Day on record, with temperatures rising to 75 degrees. The prior record was 72 in 1987. At least things are expected to start drying out on Friday.

It could have been much worse. In other states, the torrential Christmas Eve weather killed at least 11 people. And in the North Georgia counties of Fannin, Gilmer and Pickens, Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency.

Here in metro Atlanta, problems mainly concerned flooded roadways and basements.

Tondra Hodo wasn’t about to let this spoil her holiday spirit. Hodo capped her curls with a red and green hat, replete with golden jingle bells, and braved the rain for some last-minute shopping with her daughters at Perimeter Mall.

“It feels like a spring day,” she said. She wasn’t set on a white Christmas, but “a little colder … and not so rainy” would be nice.

This is the holiday when El Niño tried to steal Christmas. The weather pattern has been exceeding its threat of wetting down this winter. And its behavior this week showed absolutely no regard for holiday expectations.

Appearing every couple of years, El Niño occurs when temperatures warm the Pacific near the equator. It then carries a river of moisture across California, Texas and the Gulf states to our doorstep. For weeks, it has been drenching the region, and forecasters say more dire weather events — flooding, tornadoes, hail and snow — may come down the line.

El Niño generally brings wetter and cooler weather, but it can mix with other weather systems to change-up its delivery. This time, temperatures are warmer than usual.


El Niño certainly gave people a hard time Thursday. MARTA riders were delayed throughout the system, and a temporary "bus bridge" was established when rail service was halted between the Five Points and Oakland City stations.

Air travelers faced delays of up to three hours at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Drivers, meanwhile, had to negotiate pools of water that shut down sections on I-20, Cumberland Parkway and many other roads.

“The most dangerous condition for drivers is standing water on roadways. We always say, ‘Turn around, don’t drown,’ when flooding conditions are present,” said Sue Loeffler, director of the DeKalb Emergency Management Agency.

The weather system spawned two dozen tornadoes in six states from Indiana and Illinois to the Deep South. No tornadoes had been reported in Georgia as of Christmas Eve afternoon, but the wet and windy weather caused other problems, from interstate crashes, which left a HERO worker injured, to downed trees in Buckhead and elsewhere in metro Atlanta.

Looking ahead, the rain is expected to taper off Friday, though a flood watch will remain in effect until 7 p.m., said Brad Nitz, a meteorologist with Channel 2 Action News. Sunday is expected to reach 73 degrees with a 40 percent chance of rain.

You could say this is a holiday only a plumber could love. Indeed, Lynn Thompson worried she might have to invite a plumber for Christmas.

The Avondale Estates resident was rushing around with three sump pumps to keep water from getting into her home. The water streaming down the street rose so high in the driveway, she had to move the car.

“It’s about to come into the house,” she said, making clear she did not have a lot of time to talk to a reporter.


Amid the clouds and heavy rains, Jamal Davis had trouble finding his holiday spirit.

“It just doesn’t feel like Christmas,” said Davis, 24. Instead of a day snuggling in front of a fire in Christmas sweaters, he was resigned to this holiday’s sticky, balmy embrace. “I like frostiness.”

The Atlanta Botanical Garden’s annual Garden Lights, Holiday Nights display was set to close early Christmas Eve because of the weather. But garden spokesman Danny Flanders insisted there is a bright side to this weather.

“The rain has this magical effect over the garden when you’re photographing the lights and the reflections in the pavement and the water,” he said. Ticket holders for Thursday night’s show can obtain credit for another night before the show ends Jan 9.

For many, a gray, drippy Christmas is still Christmas, and they made the best of it. The malls were still packed with frazzled shoppers who had procrastinated.

Customers streamed into Sports Clips in McDonough, where hairstylist Nichole Potter told them, “You have to get your holiday haircut, so you look good in all the family photos.”

About a dozen people were shopping in the Taste of Britain shop in Norcross, including Keri Lanning of Buford and her 84-year-old mother, Marie Palmer.

Palmer grew up in England, and the sight of Treacle candies and little Eccles cakes brought back memories. She now lives in upstate New York, so she’s accustomed to different Christmas weather. No matter.

“Christmas is the same wherever you are,” she said, “if you celebrate it the right way.”