Snowpocalypse now

Robert Woodruff must be spinning in his grave.

The former CEO of Coca-Cola and one of Atlanta’s patriarchs, a man who worked tirelessly with his fellow business leaders to ensure this city and region stayed on a good course, would be appalled to see how our leaders handled last week’s mere two inches of snow.

Woodruff was a man who operated behind the scenes, demanding that Atlanta solve its most intractable problems and take charge of its future. He got results.

Compare that to last week’s storm woes. So poor was this performance that it seemed even worse than an election in the hands of Fulton County. It was that bad.

This in a state and region where observing politicians bumble remains reliable entertainment.

What would have happened if today’s Super Bowl was being played in Atlanta? After all, we’ve felt slighted by the National Football League for overlooking us. Well, it looks like we might deserve it.

We insist on proceeding with each county as its own independent entity – and new cities cropping up like spring tulips – with each of them overseeing their share of the metro’s already-inadequate patchwork of roads. If we continue on that path, the leaders of those places have to be prepared to handle their business – and communicate effectively with the public to prevent problems from worsening.

It’s fine and good for a certain county’s leaders to puff out their chests when they landed the region’s Major League Baseball team, but where were they when a little snow trapped thousands of commuters near the very interchange where they plan to build a stadium?

How many times do city, county and state leaders need to be caught unprepared for a winter storm? Too many citizens were put in harm’s way because those leaders could not do what needed doing. Too many accidents occurred, clogging roads and highways. Too many children were trapped on buses or slept at their schools.

We can debate taxes, the role of government, transportation funding and the very concept of regionalism, but a time comes when leadership and action are required. And if our leaders spend so much time developing skills for political theater, you can get surprised by a snowstorm – one that was, by the way, forecast.

As a result, ask the parents of the children who weren’t in their beds Tuesday night if their trust in government has been improved.

The time for leadership was in the days before the storm, not at an 11 p.m. press conference after the region was paralyzed. Instead, in front of the cameras, we got a mixed bag of explanation, apologies and genuine confusion.

At the forefront were Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Not to excuse their performance by any means, but at least they faced reporters in the hours after the metro had ground to a rough halt. Noticeably absent were leaders from surrounding counties that make up the large majority of our region’s population. Where were they?

We can’t forget that this was a couple of inches of snow – not 10 feet of water in a storm surge or 100 mph winds. Watching the performance at the first news conference – and of course thousands of us missed it because we were stranded on the roads – begged the question: “So who’s in charge here?”

And what about Gov. Deal’s initial disingenuous reference to unpredictable weather? The problem was not in the prediction. It was in government’s performance – before, during and afterward. We knew the snow was coming, at least a half-day ahead of time.

And we were assured after an ice storm three Januarys ago that things would be better this time. They weren’t. And by some measures, they may have been even worse.

At its core, this is the kind of situation where we must depend on our leaders. Instead, we learned we’re on our own — literally. In our cars on icy roads. Or stuck at work. Or leaving our cars to trudge through the storm on foot. But for the intervention of concerned citizens – many of whom opened their homes to strangers – this might’ve been a tragic day in our history.

These same leaders often say Georgia and Atlanta are the best place in the country for business. And that may provide great applause lines for business luncheons and political events, or when everyone is shaking hands about a company’s decision to relocate here.

And they’re not bad points, but they sure didn’t help all those folks stuck on the Downtown Connector or I-285. They really needed leaders who understood how to react at a crucial moment. And it didn’t help all the businesses that had to shut down, or close early, because of impassable roads on more than one day.

Perhaps worst of all, as much of the nation shook its head at us, our leaders’ performance threw its full weight firmly against the national reputation we’ve worked so hard at building.

Where have you gone, Mr. Woodruff?

For Atlantans and Georgians deserve better. We need emergency plans that actually work when push turns to shove. Our leaders must figure out how to make that happen. Georgians must demand that they do so — before the next disaster strikes.