5 big ‘SnowJam’ blunders that made Atlanta a national joke


As the metro area faces another dire winter forecast, it’s hard to forget that only three years ago we let 2.6 inches of snow knock us on our collective backside, turning Atlanta into national laughingstock.

We called it “SnowJam ‘14.” Not to be confused with “Snow Jam ‘82,” where nearly the same thing happened, or “Snowpocalypse ‘11,” which had been so recent that some leaders figured the region was statistically safe from another snow debacle for at least a decade.

The storm of January 2014 would be both painful and humiliating. Almost as deflating as the images of seas of stopped cars under a thin layer of snow was the Saturday Night Live skit where a cast member, with a Colonel Sanders goatee and a fake Southern drawl, described how he fled to the interstate and survived on “Dixie champagne” (Coke) until he was finally rescued by the sun.

SnowJam, though, wasn’t just the handiwork of panicky Southerners. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in a post-storm analysis of the region’s planning and response to the storm, called it “a series of cascading failures,” one that went all the way to the top of the state’s political leadership.

1) The region could have prepared for it, but didn’t

Local governments knew what can happen when Atlanta roads turn into skating rinks, and the AJC discovered leaders had both the funds and the opportunity to plan for a weather-induced traffic catastrophe like SnowJam.

At that point, metro Atlanta had received roughly $100 million from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for anti-terrorism training and equipment, as well as for disaster training. And the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), composed of five counties and the city of Atlanta, was receiving $5 million a year.

If state emergency management officials had pressed for it, planning for a snowstorm could have fallen under UASI’s purview, and our fractured region would have been far more prepared to coordinate between state, county and city governments. Other cities had used their UASI resources to plan for winter storms, the AJC found, most notably San Francisco, which has put those plans to use.

2) Forecasters called it, but our leaders didn’t want to be Chicken Littles

Weather forecasters were spot-on in predicting the scope and severity of the storm, just as they were in 2011. On that fateful Tuesday morning in 2014, at 3:38 a.m., the National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning, one rung below a blizzard warning. No one saw fit to wake up Gov. Nathan Deal and tell him.

Deal may have been more troubled by the prospect of overreacting — sounding the alarm for what turned out to be just another light dusting. Afterward, Deal said he should have urged people to stay home or to stagger drive times.

Yes, I would have acted sooner and I think we learned from that and we will act sooner next time,” Deal said. “But we don’t want to be accused of crying wolf. Because if we’d been wrong, y’all would have been in here saying, ‘Do you know how many millions of dollars you’ve cost the economy and the city of Atlanta?’”

3) Our top leader didn’t lead

Once awake, the governor didn’t exactly take charge. This was a big problem because, without a regional coordinated plan, he was the only one with both the legal and political muscle to make decisive judgment calls to cut through jurisdictional boundaries.

Instead, he went to a tourism event at the state Capital, unveiling a new “Gone With The Wind”-themed Georgia travel guide and posing for a photo with Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara. Later he went to a Georgia Trend luncheon at the downtown Ritz-Carlton, where Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was being honored as Georgian of the Year. (Later that day, Reed and his staffers infuriated motorists by using emergency lanes to get to an interview at The Weather Channel.)

Deal didn’t activate the National Guard until nearly midnight, when school kids had been stranded on buses for more than eight hours.

4) We became the city too busy to communicate

When the snow started falling around lunch time, GEMA didn’t use a system to send weather and traffic alerts directly to cell phones, despite receiving federal approval to use the technology in 2012. A spokesman said it hadn’t been tested or configured yet.

With zero coordination between schools systems and the business community, metro highways, surface streets and side streets quickly became parking lots. Schools were dismissed and workers poured from offices at the same time.

The state’s multi-million dollar electronic sign system flashed useless messages at trapped drivers. The state’s mobile app gave wrong information about road clearing.

5) Police on the street didn’t take charge either

All over the region, police stood by as cars blocked intersections. Officers were too busy responding to wrecks and other emergencies to try to direct traffic. Although Cobb County and Sandy Springs police worked together to get traffic moving around the Johnson Ferry Road bridge, such cooperation was the exception, not the norm.

Traffic problems were worsened by the sheer number of agencies trying to solve them: 90 locally-elected governments in a 10-county metro area.

One police chief told the AJC he saw no point in communicating with other jurisdictions along the treacherous commute between Perimeter Mall and the Cobb County suburbs, because he knew I-75, I-285 and Ga. 400 were all completely gridlocked.

So drivers did all they could do: hunker down in the cold and wait. And wait. And wait.

SNL got one part right. When rescue came, it came from the sun.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

Q&A on the News

Q: Why isn’t the Georgia Dome implosion being done on Sunday? A weekday event disrupts so much of the area. —Dan Wolbe, Sandy Springs A: Today was selected for the implosion because there was an event in the Georgia World Congress Center through Sunday evening, Holly Richmond, director of communications for the Georgia World Congress Center...
Fulton County restaurant inspection scores

Fulton County • Fish Bowl Poke Shop, 61 Broad St., Atlanta. 92/A • La Tavola, 992 Virginia Ave., Atlanta. 96/A • Loca Luna, 550 Amsterdam Ave., Atlanta. 98/A • Minero at Ponce City Market, 675 Ponce De Leon Ave., Atlanta. 91/A • Taco Cowboy, 1000 Virginia Ave., Atlanta. 96/A
DeKalb County restaurant inspection scores

DeKalb County • Argosy, 470 Flat Shoals Ave., Atlanta. 85/B • Daallo Restaurant, 5047 Memorial Drive, Stone Mountain. 87/B • Fox Bros Bar-B-Q, 1238 DeKalb Ave., Atlanta. 96/A • Lucky Thai Restaurant, 1594 Woodcliff Drive, Atlanta. 74/C • Marlie’s Kitchen, 5978 Fairington Road, Lithonia. 93/A
Cobb County restaurant inspection scores

Cobb County • Art’s Bagels & More, 3451 Cobb Parkway, Acworth. 99/A • C&S Seafood & Oyster Bar, 3300 Cobb Parkway, Atlanta. 90/A • Chris’ Caribbean Bistro, 4479 S. Cobb Drive, Smyrna. 73/C • Yellow Tail Sushi, 745 Chastain Road, Kennesaw. 76/C • Zeigler’s BBQ, 3451 Cobb Parkway, Acworth. 100/A
Rockdale County restaurant inspection scores

Rockdale County • Baan Thai Restaurant, 1745 Highway 138, Conyers. 93/A • Chili’s, 1570 Dogwood Drive, Conyers. 96/A • Five Guys, 1550 Highway 138, Conyers. 100/A • Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q, 2275 Highway 20, Conyers. 82/B • Main Moon Chinese Restaurant, 1573 Highway 20, Conyers. 89/B
More Stories