Atlanta weather: Friday’s traffic no SnowJam, but painful all the same

6:09 p.m Friday, Dec. 8, 2017 Local
Traffic builds on I-285 as a wintery mixture of sleet falls. Yet again, commuters and school buses poured onto roadways at once when the snow started, but the gridlock was short lived.  ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Metro Atlanta averted another traffic disaster from a few inches of snow — but just barely.

Friday’s winter storm had all the ingredients for a sequel to the region’s “Snowjam ‘14,” when a mere 2.6 inches of snow paralyzed the region and turned the area into a national laughingstock.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed talks live in the air with Channel 2's Wendy Corona and Craig Lucie about the city's response to the snow.

By early afternoon, snowfall had already surpassed predictions. Schools suddenly announced they would close early. Parents, commuters and school buses poured onto the roads all at once, turning GPS road maps red with gridlock.

But just when the elements of crisis appeared to converge, a break in the weather allowed roads to clear and state and local officials to breathe a sigh of relief. A spokewoman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency called the state’s collective response a “success.”

But commuters weren’t exactly raving. Short drives turned into hours of frustration.

Erwin Vargas, a paralegal, said it took him an hour and a half to get from work in Duluth to his apartment in Dunwoody. He said the metro region didn’t prepare for the storm.

“They never prepare right,” he said.

Rebecca Thach, who commuted from Scottish Rite Hospital to her home in Marietta, said her drive – which normally takes an hour – took two on Friday afternoon.

“It was just everybody leaving at once,” she said.

Despite the inconvenience, Thach said she doesn’t fault local governments – school officials especially did the best they could with the information they had, she said.

“If they call it and nothing happens, people get mad,” she said. “They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.”

Gov. Nathan Deal treated this storm far differently than previous ones: there were no executive orders declaring states of emergency, no public statements urging motorists to stay off the roads and no press conferences professing the “better-safe-than-sorry” attitude that has characterized his response to the last few bouts of wintry weather.

Nor did the state deploy a weather and traffic alert system that sends messages directly to people’s cell phones, similar to the Amber Alert system used to track down missing children. Georgia has had federal approval to use the technology since 2012. In theory, alerts could urge people to stay home, to stay off roads as gridlock developed and point them to shelter.

“I don’t think we thought that was necessary today,” said Thomas Moore, GEMA’s deputy director of emergency management. “We were able to kind of just stay in front of it.”

Moore said that metro-wide, he didn’t see a problem with vehicles pouring onto the roads all at once. GEMA spokeswoman Catherine Howden said traffic was heavier than normal, but that this was a good thing.

“A lot of that is because everybody’s doing what we want them to do,” she said. “Getting home early, going slower on the roads, and making sure that they’re taking their time so they get home safely before it starts to freeze overnight.”

As in 2014, it wasn’t immediately clear who was coordinating storm response and traffic management among Atlanta’s balkanized local governments.

Before the storm hit, Deal expressed confidence in the state’s ability to handle the weather without preemptively shutting down state offices or declaring emergencies. As the day wore on and the weather and traffic worsened, the governor maintained a low public profile, relying instead on tweets to relay that he’s given state department heads authority to determine which offices to close and whether to release employees early.

Deal, who took serious heat after SnowJam and formed a task force to deal with future weather events, scheduled no public appearances Friday.

Deal’s top aide Chris Riley sent administration officials an email early Friday afternoon noting the steady falling snow.

“I trust each of you have taken the initiative to allow offices to close and employees to leave accordingly where the weather had more of an impact this afternoon,” he wrote.

Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A lady covers her face at a Marta bus station as a wintry mix of sleet and snow is falling in East Atlanta Village. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Pressed Friday on whether the state properly prepared for the snow, Riley said the governor was confident that state emergency officials “took the necessary steps leading up to the storm.”

“As with any winter weather, we have to rely on the forecast and the state agencies who are responsible for the safety of Georgians,” he said. “The governor trusts his team.”

Howden said GEMA was working with homeland security, GDOT and the national weather service, and that GEMA was handling calls from local governments.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed told Channel 2 Action News he made the decision to keep the city open, which allowed more people to get out of the city of Atlanta faster.

“We thought it would have been a mistake to close the city early because people would have left all at one time rather than the way they left today,” he said.

While the metro area escaped mostly unscathed, some did lose power, especially in parts of north Georgia. Crews were working to restore electricty Friday evening.

According to Channel 2, 6 to 10 inches of snow could hit the North Georgia mountain counties before it’s all over. Parts of metro Atlanta could see up to 6 inches.

“We will not be done with this until we head toward late tonight, early (Saturday) morning,” Channel 2 meteorologist Brian Monahan said.

-- Staff writers Najja Parker, J. Scott Trubey, Arielle Kass and David Wickert contributed to this report

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