For thousands of motorists who left downtown Atlanta Tuesday evening, traveling I-75 to the city limits took nearly a day.
For Mayor Kasim Reed and his support team, 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 to an interview with The Weather Channel, located just off the heart of the worst congestion at I-75 and I-285.
In vehicles driven by his security team, they bypassed thousands of drivers, who by after 5 p.m. were caught up in one of the most notorious weather-induced, man-made gridlocks in Atlanta’s history. Some motorists were still stranded on stretches of the interstate a day after the storm all but shut down the metro area.
Upon arriving at the station off Windy Ridge Parkway, anchors Sam Champion and Kelly Cass congratulated the mayor for making it to the studio, to which Reed said: “I made it, Kelly.”
Reed spoke for about five minutes on the air. The quarter hour in which he appeared drew an average audience of 456,000 viewers, according to the network.
Speaking at an Atlanta Press Club event Friday, Reed said he deemed the interview important because The Weather Channel’s viewership spikes during storm events and he felt 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, 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,” Campos said.
Others felt using emergency lanes during the storm to make a cable television appearance was distasteful. When he went on the air at 6 p.m., Reed had not 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 the Perimeter to his home in Woodstock took more than seven hours Tuesday. Others were 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 passed by. 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 it 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.
Garcia, who moved to Atlanta in 1984, was 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,” he said.
Eric Schiffer, head of California-bases Reputation Management Consultants, says traveling to the interview during the storm “was a major blunder.”
“I think it suggests they didn’t get the severity and then compounded it with many moves that certainly optically appear self-serving,” he said,
Schiffer said Reed should have appeared on the emergency broadcast system in those early hours to reach the most people, adding most cars don’t have television.
While he said it’s not too late for damage control, Schiffer said, “He needs to get real.”
“He can still fix this by admitting his errors, apologizing and showing what he learned and how the next major problem will have a completely different outcome,” he said. “If it’s genuine, I think he’ll have a good response.”
Reed said and did as much in the following days, especially during the Friday appearance at the Atlanta Press Club, during which he said “mistakes” were made, called for a review of the storm response and detailed steps he’ll take ahead of the next storm.
“I want to make it clear to every single person who was impacted by this storm that I care deeply about you and about everything that happened to you,” he said.
Reed acknowledged Snow Jam 2014 cost him “political damage” but said, “I don’t care about that. I care about the people being harmed.”
Deal, who said this week “the buck stops” with him in the storm fallout, stayed at the statehouse Tuesday, rejecting interview requests from The Weather Channel and CBS News that would have taken him outside I-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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