Storm debacle ‘case study’ of emergency management failure

After two inches of snow turned Georgia into a national punch line, the state’s top disaster responder was cast as one of the debacle’s chief enablers. But the performance of state emergency management director Charley English is only part of larger-scale breakdown of the emergency management system, records and interviews reveal.

Records show there were failures up and down the line before and during Tuesday’s storm.

The performance of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency Tuesday is “a case study in how things can go badly,” said Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.

As early as 12:30 Monday afternoon, the Georgia Department of Transportation sent Gov. Nathan Deal and others advisories that snow, sleet and roadway icing were bound for the state.

“Dangerous driving conditions are spreading throughout most of north and central Georgia,” the department said in a 3 p.m. update that day.

Before dawn on Tuesday, decision-makers exchanged phone calls on the approaching storm. But emails obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution conveyed little urgency over conditions in metro Atlanta.

“The National Weather Service was telling us the critical line was south of Atlanta, around the McDonough area, and south,” said Capt. Sophie Thigpen, who represents the Georgia State Patrol at GEMA’s command center when it is activated.

At 10:25 a.m. Tuesday, GEMA sent an email to state agencies saying Deal was “concerned” about the safety of state employees and the public. Agency heads were encouraged to allow “liberal leave” so workers could go home early.

“We will continue to evaluate weather and road conditions and if the situation warrants will provide more guidance tomorrow (Wednesday) morning at 6 a.m.,” the email said.

English was in the special operations center at least by 10:50 a.m. Tuesday.

At 11:12 a.m. GEMA sent an email containing an executive order that state agency heads had the discretion to close.

Around 11:30 a.m., Thigpen and others at the center noticed the snow was going to bear down earlier than they thought.

“We knew somewhere around lunch time that the line was a little bit north of what we had been told several days ago,” Thigpen said. “That’s when things started popping.”

At midday Tuesday, she told troopers around the state to report to their assigned posts in the metro area. That’s also when “GEMA started calling other agencies, saying ‘y’all come in. This thing has moved up some.’”

“I just didn’t know they were going to get hammered like they did,” she said.

English later announced he made a “terrible error in judgment” for failing to recognize the severity of the situation and mobilize the state operations center sooner. He also said he should not have downplayed the gridlock that left thousands of students stranded at school overnight and kept motorists trapped in their cars.

Much of the responsibility for what did or didn’t happen does rest with English, experts say. While state law gives Deal the authority to issue emergency orders and plan for disasters, the governor would rely on the emergency manager’s assessment, Redlener said.

“I appreciate the fact that it’s a tough call,” he said. “But that’s what they get the bucks for. You want to be the director of emergency management for a state, you have to exercise your best judgment, and I don’t think that happened here.”

The real problem may have taken root long before Tuesday, other experts say.

Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, said the key to emergency management is getting things done through collaboration before a disaster hits, not so much having a forceful presence during crisis.

“Most of the work that goes on in emergency management goes on during non-emergency times when you build consensus,” she said. “Then hopefully, when something happens, you activate (a plan). You don’t go around with your hair on fire.”

Georgia leaders—including Deal — have long trusted English to be the calm presence.

Too often, governors appoint emergency management heads who know more about politics than public safety. William Waugh, a Georgia State University disaster preparedness expert, said English was not one of those.

“While he is a political appointee, he is the definition of a professional,” Waugh said.

Those who have worked with English describe him as calm during chaos. He worked in public safety for decades. His accomplishments include top safety planning roles during the Olympics and G8 summit. This reputation led Gov. Sonny Perdue to appoint English to head GEMA in 2006.

“He’s a very quiet, reserved leader who leads by example. He’s there 24-7 when needed. I can assure you his team has the utmost respect for him and he gives them the respect and opportunity they deserve. I’ve never known anyone to have a bad thing to say about Charley English,” Perdue said.

Col. Mark McDonough, head of the State Patrol, said English often has to work with big egos. “That’s where his steady hand approach is needed,” he said.

Deal reappointed English and even expanded the director’s authority in the aftermath of the crippling January 2011 snowstorm. Now English shapes national policies on responses to natural disasters and terrorist attacks as president of the National Emergency Management Association.

Even when a 2012 federal report was critical of GEMA, the state stood by him. The report, published by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, said GEMA “could not demonstrate quantifiable improvement and accomplishments to reduce its vulnerability to terrorism and natural disasters” to back up its use of federal grants.

State officials called the statement “inflammatory, irresponsible and offensive to the state and those in the homeland security community who benefit every day from the equipment, training, plans and systems that homeland security funds” have provided.

This week, however, Deal described English’s tenure at GEMA only as “adequate and above adequate.”

English did not respond to requests for an interview. McDonough said he is taking the fallout this week hard.

“His conscience is wearing on him. The person I know has probably spent a lot of time looking in the mirror. He’s taking it personally,” McDonough said.

Redlener said that being an emergency manager is akin to being an airline pilot.

“Unfortunately, you have to be right 100 percent of the time,” he said.