Seeking better solutions next time, not scapegoats

In times of crisis, the state has a responsibility to act swiftly and decisively on behalf of the public using the information and resources available at that time.

Like school systems, municipal government, and private business, state government initially remained open for business. In anticipation of the snowstorm hitting further south, resources were dispatched to different areas across Georgia. Reinforcements were sent to Macon, Augusta and the sounding areas. Due to changing forecasts, equipment and resources were ultimately rerouted and recalled on Tuesday, costing precious time.

In short, preparations were made for the storm we were expecting on Monday night, not the one that developed in the early morning hours of Tuesday, and they proved inadequate. We didn’t respond quickly enough, and I accept responsibility for that. Debate over some decisions is warranted, and I believe it will be constructive in assessing our disaster response and preparedness moving forward.

We’re better prepared than in 2011, but more progress must be made. As I’ve said before, I’m not going to look for a scapegoat. As your governor, the buck stops with me. But that is not enough. Apologies don’t change circumstances.

With that in mind, I’ve ordered an exhaustive, top-to-bottom review and analysis of existing agency policies. Certainly, Georgians must be able to count upon an emergency response protocol designed to deal with an influx of traffic. In order to facilitate the process of getting motorists home quickly, We must install more effective systems and implement better methods of communication and coordination.

We’ll also be more proactive in advance of future situations. We’ll be more aggressive in terms of declaring states of emergency, in deploying our emergency personnel, and issuing warnings far in advance. Exercising this level of caution may result in false alarms. As we learned this week, however, it’s a risk we must be willing to take.

To be clear, precautionary measures were taken in metro Atlanta before the storm hit. By 9 a.m. Tuesday, workers were treating interstates, overpasses and bridges in metro Atlanta. This progress was halted by the massive influx of cars on Atlanta’s roads. Evacuating 1 million people in icy, hazardous conditions at virtually the same time was untenable. The resulting gridlock was worsened by jackknifed tractor-trailers, abandoned cars blocking lanes, and traffic so heavy that snow equipment and emergency response vehicles were unable to pass.

Given the deteriorating situation on roadways, I declared a state of emergency on Tuesday afternoon. On Thursday, I extended it two additional days, through Sunday night, to ensure the availability of all necessary resources. In particular, this extension was necessary in order for state agencies and local governments to clear roads and all other winter storm-related obstructions.

From the start, the safety of our schoolchildren was my number-one priority. When the storm hit Tuesday, I ordered the Georgia National Guard and State Patrol to prioritize stranded school buses full of students. Using Humvees, they were able to get the buses moving and deliver food and water to the students. That night, we had at least 95 immobile buses. We had cleared them all by daybreak Wednesday, and that was a big task. Our next step was getting tens of thousands of students safely home from school, and by Wednesday afternoon we achieved that.

My next goal was to get all stranded motorists moving or to a secure location by nightfall Wednesday. That afternoon, I joined law enforcement officials on an aerial inspection of our roadways and witnessed tremendous progress with traffic moving steadily throughout the region. On Wednesday, state agencies were also tasked with assisting motorists in retrieving abandoned vehicles. Thursday evening, the Georgia State Patrol were instructed to begin clearing abandoned vehicles that pose a safety threat from our interstates, with the state incurring towing costs.

All told, the National Guard assisted more than 500 stranded motorists. The Georgia State Patrol, working 16-to-20-hour shifts, responded to 1,500 more. We broadcast emergency hotlines and shelter locations, put hospitals on alert, and coordinated with state and local public safety personnel.

I am extremely grateful for the dedication of our law enforcement officers, first responders, and private citizens. Your hard work, vigilance, and kindness have been invaluable to our efforts.

My deepest thanks, however, is reserved for the teachers, principals, school bus drivers, and other faculty who stayed overnight with students. Despite the hazardous conditions and families of their own, these dedicated individuals fed, comforted and cared for our schoolchildren. They reassured anxious parents and worked with us to safely transport each child home. Their courage and selflessness is an example to us all. These individuals have the sincere gratitude of parents, Georgians across the state and me.