When metro Atlanta was blanketed with snow in early December, it made for a fun three-day weekend. A month later, when Savannah received more snow than it had in three decades, it was treated as a novelty.
But novelty gave way to nuisance this week when the region was paralyzed by a little more than two inches of snow. Atlantans have had enough of winter, and we’re not even halfway through it. History tells us to expect more, as many of Georgia’s worst storms have struck in the latter part of the season.
Already the weather has forced local governments to dip into cash reserves to fund hundreds of hours of overtime, caused at least two deaths on ice-slicked roadways awash with accidents, thrown the state’s lucrative farming industry into uncertainty and fueled disarray at schools where missed days may not be made up.
Some say the state — which is set to host the Super Bowl and is in the hunt to land Amazon’s coveted second headquarters — needs to up its game, dedicating more resources to dealing with the type of weather that, while rare, is perennially crippling.
“I just can’t understand how a city that spends tons of cash on the Beltline and beautification cannot be bothered to stockpile a small amount of salt and have trucks on hand to deal with the inevitable handful of winter days that result in a few inches of snow and ice,” said Carrie Lewine McCready, a labor attorney who was home this week trying to work and keep track of her young child after day care shut its doors.
A WINTER FOR THE AGES
While it may not seem like much to Buffalo or Fargo, it must be noted that Georgia has experienced a winter like few that have come before.
It began last month with a bang when the northwestern suburbs were blanketed by up to 10 inches of snow. It continued earlier this month when metro area school systems canceled classes ahead of an anticipated winter storm that ended up bypassing Atlanta. The same storm brought more than an inch of snow to Savannah, more than the coastal city has seen in nearly three decades.
Already Atlanta has received 4.7 inches of snow, the 11th highest total since such records started being kept in 1928 and the most since the winter of 2013-14, when the city recorded five inches of snow.
But this week’s icy adventure brought unique challenges, due more to its reach than ferocity.
Typically, winter storms are limited do a certain region of the state. But last week’s weather affected 12,849 miles of highway – nearly three-fourths of the 18,000 miles of road GDOT is responsible for clearing. It also covered 83 of Georgia’s 159 counties.
That meant GDOT was able to transfer less equipment and personnel from the southern part of the state than it did, say, during December’s winter blast.
The nature of the storm itself also hindered efforts to keep roads clear. This week’s snow was dry – GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale likened it to “plowing sawdust.”
“It just blows back up in the air and falls back on the road,” she said.
By comparison, December’s snow was wet and heavy, making it easier to plow.
The sub-freezing temperatures only added to the challenge.
Still, GDOT officials say they are pleased with their efforts.
“In one 12-hour shift (Wednesday), we were able to get all interstates passable and most state routes in good shape,” Dale said.
On Thursday, Atlanta’s new mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, announced that the city had cleared 1,044 miles of roadway and transported 144 people to warming centers.
Bottoms warned residents that roads were still dangerous even though the sun had come out. She thanked her public safety team for lessening the impact of the snow and ice and helping the city “get ahead of this issue.”
It was a sharp contrast to the partial apology that her predecessor issued after the Snowpocalypse of 2014 when the city, state and schools created profound gridlock with the near simultaneous release of students, public employees and office workers.
Thousands of students were stranded. More than 1,200 car accidents occurred. Some motorists were forced to sleep in convenience stores.
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This time around, both the city and schools announced they were closing the day before ice covered the roads. Public officials repeatedly warned people to stay home, minimizing traffic problems — though there were still plenty of accidents (261 as of Thursday morning, according to city spokeswoman Jenna Garland).
But preparation can prove costly. The City of Atlanta mobilized about 300 employees to deal with this week’s storm, not including police and fire. That personnel did everything from supporting the salt supply to staffing warming centers. Garland said independent contractors were also mobilized to assist with the weather response.
Overtime hours usually end up as the biggest expense. Bill Shelton, head of road management for Cobb’s Department of Transportation, said the county was already approaching $500,000 this year for extreme weather events.
And then there’s the materials. Salt and sand may not be expensive, but roughly 800 tons of anything starts to add up.
That’s how much Gwinnett County used to treat its roads this week, said spokesman Joe Sorenson. Twenty trucks were staffed to cover the county’s “major” roads.
Sorenson said the county budgets and prepares for winter storms and other emergencies. Even so, weather this severe can put additional pressure on the budget.
“When we see this kind of repeated freeze and thaw pattern, however, we see an additional deferred strain our our transportation budget when we have to repair potholes and other damage that would not have otherwise occurred,” he said.
GDOT ended up deploying some 1,500 employees – about 40 percent of its workforce – to clear roads statewide.
Spokesman Scott Higley said it’s too soon to tell how much it all cost. But when winter is over, he thinks it will be unprecedented.
“Even if we don’t have another winter storm, this is probably a record-setting season,” he said. “Thankfully, it doesn’t look like we’ve got another one on the near horizon.”
Forecasters at WSB-TV said while the rest of the winter is expected to be warmer and dry, the season has already defied expectations so more storms could still be on the horizon.
COST TO BUSINESS
Overall, the economic loss of a two-day snow-in is just a rounding error, said economist Tom Smith of the Goizueta Business School at Emory. “But it may not be a rounding error to some mom-and-pop company.”
To many small companies, daily cash flow is crucial to paying bills, he said.
“Somebody’s out there thinking, ‘We certainly don’t need two more business days cancelled,’ and to them that business means everything. You can’t know who they are, but they are scrambling.”
And there are many workers – like those in restaurants – who will simply not have a chance to make up for the lost pay.
“I lost a day and four hours [of pay], which sucks but there’s not really too much you can do about,” said Tatijana Malone, who works at a Marietta clothing boutique that closed for part of the storm. “You just have to roll with the punches because we are not a state built for weather like that.”
On the agricultural front, Georgia’s peach and blueberry crops actually may have benefited from the cold snaps.
But Vidalia onion farmers lost 5 to 10 percent of the seedlings in the ground in the first week of January, according to Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association. Hall said it’s impossible to know the extent of this week’s damage until later in the season.
The airlines also took it on the chin this week. Through Thursday, the airlines canceled more than 1,200 flights at Hartsfield-Jackson, which typically handles about 2,500 flights a day.
Mass cancellations often cause tens of millions of dollars of impact on major airlines. The snowstorm that struck Atlanta in early December took a $20 million toll on Delta’s profits.
After dealing with nearly 200 accidents on Tuesday, Newnan officials determined drastic steps were necessary. A 5 p.m. curfew was imposed to keep cars off the road, and calls for assistance on the city’s roads dramatically decreased.
But that won’t work in a city like Atlanta. McCready, the Edgewood attorney, said residents should expect better.
“Climate change is real, so why don’t we stop spending money on running fountains, planting flowers, and piping in music downtown 24/7 for the few visitors to our city who notice and offer real services that keep our city going in what could only be generously called ‘inclement weather,’ ” she said.