For thousands of motorists who left downtown Atlanta Tuesday evening, traveling I-75 to the city limits took nearly a day.
But for Mayor Kasim Reed and his support staff, the drive was considerably shorter.
Hours before Reed would stand at a press conference with Gov. Nathan Deal to address a winter storm crisis, the mayor and a handful of staffers used emergency lanes to cruise their way to an interview with The Weather Channel, located just off the heart of the worst congestion — I-75 and I-285.
In vehicles driven by sworn police officers, they bypassed thousands of drivers after 5 p.m. in what quickly became one of the most notorious weather-induced, man-made gridlocks in Atlanta’s history. Some motorists were stranded on stretches of the interstate days after Winter Storm Leon virtually shut down the metro area.
Upon arriving to the station off of Windy Ridge Parkway, cheerful anchors Sam Champion and Kelly Cass congratulated the mayor for making it to the studio, to which Reed said “I made it, Kelly.”
Reed, speaking at an Atlanta Press Club event Friday, said he deemed the interview important because The Weather Channel’s viewership spikes during storm events, thus he could reach a wide audience quickly.
“It gave me an amplifying capability to help people stay safe,” he said. On the cable broadcast, he implored people to stay off the roads. “I thought people needed to hear that from me.”
Reed’s spokesman Carlos Campos, who also traveled to the station, said the interview was in line with the demands of a mayor during a major event. And he stressed Friday that no police officers were taken off the street to escort the mayor and himself, noting Reed is routinely driven by his executive protection team.
“People expect to hear from their leaders during crises, and we attempted to accommodate as many media interview requests as possible,” he said.
Others see using emergency lanes during the storm for a national, cable television appearance as distasteful. At the time of the interview, around 6 p.m., many motorists were well into six hours of unyielding gridlock.
By that point, Reed hadn’t yet held a major press conference to speak about storm preparation or response. It wasn’t until after 11 p.m. that the mayor and Deal directly addressed a weary public.
“He’s worried about his national exposure when the whole city is in gridlock?” asked Scott Albertson, whose trek from Perimeter to his home in Woodstock took more than seven hours Tuesday, comparatively shorter than those stuck on I-75 as long as 20 hours. “He’s worried about his chances to run for Senate or president some day.”
Albertson said he saw no first responders during his icy commute back to Cherokee County. At times, he left his car to help other drivers navigate ice.
Rafael Garcia was among those idling on I-75 when Reed’s crew headed for The Weather Channel interview just before 6 p.m. By that time, Garcia had been on the road four hours, and would have eight to go before arriving home to Woodstock.
“I think it’s adding insult to a bad situation. The more I thought about this, the more upset I get in every respect,” said Garcia, who abandoned his car on the side of I-75 after he lost traction on the slippery roads. He hitched a ride with a stranger. And when he returned the next day to retrieve his car, it was gone, sending him on another odyssey to find it. (He’s hoping to bring it home today.)
Garcia, who moved to Atlanta in 1984, is furious at what he sees as a lack of preparation for the storm from regional and state leaders.
“Every time it’s the same story,” he said. “They spend absolutely no time preparing for it. We have a disaster when it happens. It’s chaos and pandemonium, and then we spend six months listening to excuses and how they will be prepared for it next time. And then it’s exactly the same thing.”
And indeed, Reed listed steps his administration took to prepare for the snow, assuring The Weather Channel audience Atlanta was ready for the storm, unlike in 2011.
“Right now I’m just focused on getting the 1.1 million people who are in the city during the day, out,” Reed said. “We always have tough traffic and certainly the snow has made it tougher. But once we get folks off the roads, I think people will see a noticeable difference in how fast we get the city working again.”
Excuses, Reed told The Weather Channel anchors, is what people don’t want to hear.
“I think despite the fact that you don’t frequently have snow in the South, people just don’t want any excuses.”
Deal stayed at the statehouse on Tuesday, rejecting interview requests for Weather Channel and CBSNews that would have brought him outside 285 during the gridlock. Instead, he held news conferences in his office and did a Wednesday Skype interview with PBS NewsHour.
“We are greatly appreciative of Mayor Reed’s strenuous efforts to keep the people of his city informed on many different platforms,” said Deal spokesman Brian Robinson. “Gov. Deal works to do the same thing to keep people informed of our progress, we just did it from here.”
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Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.