A Tale of two Cities: Atlanta and Gainesville weather the February 11-13 ice storms.

Every so often, even nature provides a do-over. Turns out that the ice storm that shut down Atlanta (and virtually no one else) was merely providing a tune-up for cities up and down the entire east coast. The real impact came this past week in the form of two blows following in quick succession… in Atlanta and Gainesville, beginning early Tuesday and continuing then through Wednesday. Again Atlanta came in for criticism from some quarters, but this time for “overreacting.” But generally speaking, Atlanta rose to the occasion, and Gainesville again sailed through. Some press:

From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Just two weeks ago, Georgia was roundly ridiculed for allowing 2.6 inches of snow to throw the Atlanta metro area into gridlocked chaos. Leaders this past week were granted a rare second chance to do it right, the political equivalent of a mulligan.

In the end, what may have mattered most in the way this storm played out was beyond anyone’s control: It struck overnight when most Georgians were home asleep, a far cry from January’s mid-afternoon snowfall that transformed clogged interstates into slick parking lots.

Then there was the fear factor. Residents, spooked by apocalyptic images from that earlier snowjam, simply weren’t taking chances. They hunkered down to ride out this round of winter fury. The interstates littered with abandoned cars last time were eerily empty.

It was a different storm and, at least for the Atlanta area, one that didn’t live up to its ominous billing as “catastrophic.” But it was also a different preparation and response.

A review by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of emergency efforts this time around found a more vigorous and better coordinated effort. Gov. Nathan Deal seized the helm early and stayed visible throughout. Transportation and emergency management officials made better use of technology. Schools shut their doors before a drop of precipitation had fallen.

Yet the effort wasn’t problem free. Heading into the weekend, tens of thousands of Georgians remained in the dark without power as utility companies scrambled to repair power lines and transformers damaged by ice or brought down by ice-slicked trees and branches. The outages were particularly severe in Augusta, which was encrusted with an inch of ice.

From the Gainesville Times: After three days of closures, local government reopened Friday to begin assessing the full impact of the snow and ice storm on operations, all while handling a backlog of administrative work and requests for services from residents.

Public safety agencies reported no major increases in motor vehicle accidents and calls for service during the storm, thanks in the large part to the fact that residents heeded warnings and stayed off roads at the height of the storm Tuesday and Wednesday…

…“Although there were certain facilities shut down for the past three days, a large majority of government workers kept working through this storm,” Hall County spokeswoman Katie Crumley said.

Public safety personnel account for more than half of Gainesville and Hall County workers. But road maintenance crews, engineers, public works staff and others also contributed to local government’s response to the storm, often being reassigned to other departments, meaning the vast majority of government workers were putting in hours during the past few days.

“Whenever you have something as significant as this storm … you do whatever you need to do,” said Hall County Administrator Randy Knighton.

There’s much more to both narratives, both good and bad. But though both outcomes the second time around depended in part on local leadership, more credit is due the general public. Millions of people across the region shouldered individual responsibility for themselves and their families. Those individuals paid attention to their leaders, to weather forecasts and other emergency advisories, and they took personal action. It wasn’t so much that the messages from all the top-down sources suddenly got much more-impact oriented, or took advantage of the latest and best meteorological knowledge and social science (though these leadership measures remain essential) it was that the listeners realized they were ultimately, personally answerable.

A closing note: The recent events show that we’re capable of learning from experience –from what happens to us. They reveal, however, that we could get better at learning from the experience of others. This second time around, for example, two other cities – Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina – experienced a bit of the dysfunctional response, paralysis and gridlock that they’d seen just down the road in Atlanta the week prior.

The aviation community has solved this problem. As discussed repeatedly on LOTRW, thanks to the NTSB, learning from crashes and near-accidents is quick and widespread, virtually universal. Social networking and other 21st-century tools provide us the same opportunity for learning from natural disasters. We can do better.




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