Traffic inched along the Downtown Connector as snow fell across the Atlanta region Jan. 28, 2014. BEN GRAY / BGRAY@AJC.COM
Photo: Ben Gray
Photo: Ben Gray

Snow forecast, but Atlanta says it’s ready for Super Bowl visitors

Georgia still stinging from humiliating experiences with snow, ice

Atlanta is under the microscope now as visitors begin arriving in the city for Super Bowl LIII amid forecasts for snow, an ominous development that is summoning painful memories of Georgia’s humiliating experiences with Mother Nature.

Atlanta became the butt of jokes in 2000, the last time it hosted a Super Bowl, after a winter storm disrupted MARTA rail services, and again in 2014 when a few inches of snow transformed the region’s roads into parking lots.

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That fiasco from five years ago prompted Saturday Night Live to mock the Peach State with a fictional character named Buford Calloway, a drawling and handkerchief-waving Georgian terrified by what he called the “Devil’s Dandruff.”

So is Georgia ready this time?

Gov. Brian Kemp and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms held a news conference Monday to talk about winter weather preparations.
Photo: Photo: WSB-TV

Gov. Brian Kemp sought to project a sense preparedness at a news conference Monday. State government offices in 35 counties across North Georgia will close Tuesday, Kemp announced, though he said it’s too early to declare a state of emergency.

“We are literally doing everything that we can and being proactive,” Kemp told reporters.

The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for more than a dozen far North Georgia counties and an advisory for all of metro Atlanta. Forecasts called for a fast-moving storm front that could dump as much as 3 inches of snow on North Georgia — and maybe an inch in the metro Atlanta area — and may leave behind icy road conditions. Channel 2 Action News warned of travel disruptions into Wednesday morning as plunging temperatures cause wet spots to freeze. The forecast does not call for winter weather during Sunday’s Super Bowl.

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The storm presents an early challenge for Kemp, who was sworn into office earlier this month. He appears to be taking the same approach as his predecessor, Gov. Nathan Deal, who adopted a better-safe-than-sorry strategy in his final years in office. After the 2014 storm, officials bought more equipment and agreed to improve coordination across agencies and county lines.

The Georgia Department of Transportation already has begun applying brine to highways in the northeastern and northwestern parts of the state. On Tuesday morning, GDOT will begin adding a mix of salt and gravel to bridges and overpasses. The agency is bringing crews in from South Georgia to help. The goal: Keep at least two lanes of traffic passable on interstates and state highways.

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The preparations come five years after metro Atlanta was ridiculed in the wake of “Snowmageddon,” when ice and a slight snowfall triggered a series of cascading failures, leaving hundreds of thousands of motorists stranded and desperate for food, water and shelter. Local agencies barely communicated with each other and the public. The state’s multimillion-dollar electronic sign system flashed useless messages at trapped drivers. The state’s mobile app, which is supposed to give up-to-the-minute updates on road conditions, gave wrong information about road clearings. Police stood by as cars blocked intersections. Calls to 911 were answered by an automated “all circuits are busy” message.

GDOT officials say they have learned from the experience. In 2014, the state had no brine available to treat roads. Today, it has a capacity of 900,000 gallons statewide. GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale said her agency is working closely with Atlanta and Super Bowl organizers “to ensure we are on the same page” as the big game approaches.

Many Atlanta-area school districts have announced they will be closed Tuesday, including Atlanta and Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties.

Non-essential Atlanta employees will be given Tuesday off, said Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. She added the city has spent more money on equipment to keep snow off sidewalks.

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“We are prepared,” she said Monday. “We started pre-treating our streets and also our sidewalks. For those who are staying in the downtown area, you shouldn’t have a problem getting in and around downtown for the 24 hours that we are expecting inclement weather.”

Brett Daniels, chief operating officer of the Atlanta Super Bowl Host Committee, also declared Atlanta is ready.

“We are prepared to put on the greatest Super Bowl ever,” he said. “It’s going to be a spectacular weekend for football.”

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank expressed optimism.

“Whatever the weather is tomorrow, we’ll deal with it,” he said. “Whether if they are in the stadium or outside of the stadium, they are going to feel the Southern warmth.”

01/28/2019 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms laughs while speaking with Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur M. Blank following a 'Welcome to Super Bowl LIII' press conference at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Monday, January 28, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines is warning the storm could disrupt flights Tuesday and Wednesday in Atlanta, where the company operates its largest hub. Delta is allowing travelers with flights booked to, from or through Atlanta for Jan. 29 or Jan. 30 to alter their plans without paying a change fee.

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Officials at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport said they were prepared to pre-treat runways, taxiways, roads and bridges ahead of the snow. The world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson has 12 brooms and 11 plows that can attach to vehicles for snow-clearing as well as 77,500 gallons of fluid for pre-treating runways and taxiways and more than 50 tons of pellets for breaking up ice.

MARTA Police Chief Wanda Dunham said her agency has stockpiled salt, brine and sand. It has also acquired sleeping bags and mattresses for employees, and it’s required them to pack “to-go” bags for Super Bowl week.

“We need them here,” Dunham said. “They’ll have everything they need to sustain them for 72 hours.”

Staff writers D. Orlando Ledbetter, Vanessa McCray, Tim Tucker, Marlon A. Walker and Kelly Yamanouchi contributed to this report.

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