New emails: English thought it ‘sure is warm outside’

Staff writer Andria Simmons contributed to this report

The day before a paralyzing snow began falling on metro Atlanta last week, a top official in the Georgia Emergency Management Agency told his boss that he might have to postpone a trip to Washington the next day.

“Still a lot of possibilities with this storm,” Gary Kelley, a deputy director, wrote in an email to GEMA director Charley English, about Kelley’s upcoming trip.

“Sure is warm outside,” English responded.

“Yeah, I hope it stays that way, but unfortunately, I am not optimistic,” Kelley wrote.

A crush of traffic and ice gridlocked the city the next day, and English became the unhappy face of a state that couldn’t handle two inches of snow.

Gov. Nathan Deal was dismayed by the email traffic the AJC reported on Monday, and English’s future as GEMA chief is in doubt, according to a person close to Deal who did not wish to be identified.

Publicly, Deal continued to defend English Monday, as he did last week.

“He openly acknowledged he made a mistake,” Deal said. “I think that most of us in our lives have made a mistake. Probably not as obvious as maybe this one. But he is conducting himself as I would expect him. And he has been very diligent in keeping me and my staff updated on the conditions until the state of emergency was terminated last evening.”

English, who was paid $122,000 last year, was asked Monday whether he took the storm response seriously.

“I really appreciate you giving me a chance (to comment) but… I better not, I’ve probably said enough,” English said.

'Call if you need me'

Emails released to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show a GEMA leader clearly caught unawares by the storm and its potential impact on Atlanta.

In one email obtained by the AJC, Kelley warned English on the Sunday before the storm of a band of snow stretching south of Atlanta. English's reply: "Wondered what NWS (National Weather Service) was saying. Had heard some broadcast meteorologists predicting something."

When Deal’s chief of staff began expressing concerns about the coming storm Monday afternoon, English responded by sending “briefing slides” with weather information. “I think after the first few slides they are pretty informative. Call if you need me and I will see you tomorrow.”
GEMA officials ramped up plans Monday to staff a command center, starting either at 5 p.m. or 7 p.m. Tuesday, to deal with expected ice storms in Southeast Georgia. By 5 p.m., Tuesday, traffic had long since come to a halt on Atlanta freeways.
At 4:30 p.m. Monday, English wrote that the governor was “being kept informed of weather conditions and will make appropriate decisions as warranted.”
Three hours later, Gary Kelley sent an email to English that prefigured the coming disaster, although neither man knew it. “Delta called advising that they have canceled my flight to DC scheduled for Wednesday morning. Thought it was interesting that they are already canceling flights.”

‘This winter weather thing’

GEMA’s “one-minute weather outlook” sent at 7 a.m. Tuesday, warned “significant ice accumulation will create dangerous driving conditions for motorists, including first responders.”
By Tuesday at 11 a.m. English was getting emails from west Georgia offices of icy roads and wrecks. At noon, he wrote this:
“Sorry for the delay, dealing with this winter weather ‘thing’ …. schools closed in Savannah due to freezing rain?? a rare occurrence. Will be all better by Thursday.”
When another state official emailed him just before noon on Tuesday wishing him luck, he responded: Thank you ….. It will all be better Thursday!”
Shortly after midnight Wednesday he responded to an email from a Weather Channel forecaster who asked him whether he needed any help. “If you could elevate those temps about 20 degrees with wind it would be greatly appreciated!!”
Early Wednesday morning, FEMA’s top Atlanta official wrote English praising him for the response. “I know a lot of this comes out of your recent plans for snow and ice events. The press is always looking for ways to find daylight between State. And City. I know our folks are talking.”
Then consultants started offering advice and help. By Wednesday night, when the fallout was clear, supporters were emailing him letting him know they were keeping English in their prayers.
“Thanks for your hard work and leadership over the past two days,” wrote Sid Johnson, commissioner of the state Department of Administrative Services.