Georgia ice storms: a tale of two cities.

Atlanta. Everyone knows what happened in Atlanta, Georgia on January 28-29. An ice storm turned the city’s main thoroughfares and expressways into congested tangles of cars and trucks. Some drivers were trapped for as long as eighteen hours in the traffic snarl. Others abandoned their cars to seek shelter, in in extreme instances walking miles to reach home. Many school children spent the night getting what sleep they could on gymnasium floors, unable to reach anxious parents at home. It took days to get the abandoned vehicles off the roads and reunited with their owners. Recriminations continue to ricochet across the media.

atlanta weather

The uproar that followed earlier in the month stemmed less from the event itself and more from the sense that government officials at state and local levels had let the public down, that they’d failed to prepare and coordinate adequately before, during, and after the event.

Gainesville. By contrast, here are excerpts from the Gainesville Times website, posted January 30:

Cars slipped and slid throughout Northeast Georgia on Wednesday as some drivers ventured out on icy roads, but no major injuries were reported…

…Spokesman Scott Cagle said the fire department had received 48 calls for motor vehicle accidents of a total 510 calls countywide between midnight and 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Cagle said Hall County public safety agencies had managed the impact of the storm better than neighboring counties, but he cautioned motorists that side streets could remain treacherous through the afternoon today as freezing temperatures overnight Wednesday would almost certainly create black ice conditions…

 …Wednesday night, the Georgia Department of Transportation announced all interstates and state routes in Northeast Georgia were open for use except the Ga. 180 spur in Union County and the northern third of Ga. 348/Richard Russell Scenic Parkway in White and Union counties, both still closed.

As a result, the DOT said it was diverting many of its crews from the region to help clear roads in metro Atlanta, which remained clogged with ice, jack-knifed trucks and abandoned vehicles.

Sounds more like a routine bad–weather day… to such an extent that Gainesville could release assets to help with the Atlanta aftermath.

Many factors probably contributed to these different outcomes. Gainesville is smaller, perhaps a tenth the size of Atlanta. Public officials took prompt action prior to the event.

But the local citizenry may also have been better prepared. For more than a year, ever since the Joplin 2011 tornado, a loosely-coordinated group of state and local government agencies, the area’s big employers, churches, and other NGO’s have been building a dialog about the weather hazards facing Gainesville and how residents might work together to build awareness and preparedness across the area.

Some of the participants in this place-based dialog spoke at sessions of last week’s 2014 AMS Annual Meeting in Atlanta. On Saturday, February 1, Bill Wittel, a retired businessman from the community, briefed the NWS informal International Workshop (bringing together dozens of leaders from national hydrometeorological  services from all over the world) on Gainesville’s community-wide steps toward building disaster resilience. Gainesville has emphasized (1) loose coordination-coupling across people and sectors (vs. top-down command-and-control) and (2) individual/family responsibility as starting points. Both these ideas resonated with the international leaders.

Monday afternoon, February 3, Mr. Wittel returned to AMS, this time accompanied by Gainesville Police Chief Brian Kelly, former FEMA Region 4 administrator John Copenhaver, and Mike Raderstorf,  director of security at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center. The four held a panel discussion on Gainesville’s work as part of the Second Symposium on Building a Weather-Ready Nation: Enhancing Our Nation’s Readiness, Responsiveness, and Resilience to High Impact Weather Events. On this latter occasion, National Weather Service leadership had a chance to see and hear from Gainesville leadership. They learned that the community, mindful of the destruction wreaked by the 1936 Gainesville tornado, wasn’t waiting for any NWS engagement before taking action.

The Gainesville folks were kind enough to host me for a day-long visit this past Monday, February 10. More on what they’re doing and on the impacts of today’s ice storms in the next post.

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