What We Got Right And What We Got Wrong

A long but thorough guest post from James Williams who blogs on his own at Drifting Through The Grift. Cross-posted with permission.

Don’t like the weather in Atlanta? Wait five minutes. In a week where there were few laughs, as we hit 65 this weekend and roll around in shorts, we would do well to remember that old joke.

But humor aside, we all learned some harsh lessons this past week. And by everyone, I mean everyone. Everyone made mistakes – from employers who gambled they could get a full days work out of their employees to the Governor, who for reasons he has yet to explain, did not fully mobilize following that early morning warning from the National Weather Service to the national media who do not understand “Atlanta” is more than a dot on the map.

Hopefully, once the sensationalism dies down, we will have an honest conversation about everything that went wrong.

Let me be clear about a few things first.

  • The National Weather Service absolutely got the forecast right. I have nothing but admiration for this sometimes beleaguered agency. I would trust them with my life.
  • Once the warning was made at 3:55am Tuesday morning, state and local leaders made a series of calamitous decisions. One more important than all of the others
  • The national media continues to conflate how much warning we received and what “Atlanta” is and this is the reason we continue to wallow in the blame swamp.

Let’s start with the forecast issue.

Nathan Deal made an unfortunate word choice in his first storm press conference, calling the storm “unexpected”. Of course he was wrong. The National Weather Service and other weather outlets had warned Georgia of an impending event since the previous Saturday. But he wasn’t completely wrong. Prior to 3:00pm on Monday, no weather service indicated north of I-20 would be hit with any more than a dusting and any icing problems would happen Tuesday night (and this did happen just as predicted but by then it was too late).CalloutGriftPiece

That the nexus of the disaster hit north of I-20 is a critical fact which plays into any analysis and has been mostly ignored.

Reviewing the weather discussion from the NWS, all indications prior to Monday evening show the focus of the storm being south of I-20. It was Monday evening before Fulton County was upgraded from a Winter Watch to an Advisory*. The last thing most people saw before they went to bed was 1-2 inches of accumulation in Fulton County but the worst of the storm still far to the south.

It should be noted, the one service that made explicit warnings on Monday afternoon wasAccuweather. Vice President Mike Smith is rightly furious that no one listened. But the government doesn’t listen to a private company, they rely on the National Weather Service.

In addition to the standard warnings, government leaders received two briefings from the NWS and they are telling. The Monday 3:00pm briefing included the statement “significant travel problems across much of central and some of north Georgia including parts of the Atlanta Metro area”. The next briefing was at 9:00am the following morning and it was far more explicit, but as we now know, the die was already cast.

At 3:55am, everything changed. The NWS issued a Winter Warning and its details were rather explicit. Instead of snow starting midday to midafternoon, it would start at 9:00 am and the conditions would deteriorate as we went into the afternoon.

This is a crucial point for two reasons: National media (and some local partisans) keep saying we had days of warnings this would happen (not true for the northern suburbs) but starting at 3:55am, local officials had definitive warning and how they acted after this was critical.

Once a warning was in hand, several critical decisions were not made, and few of them involve the man taking the brunt of the blame – Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

Circumstantial evidence indicates the critical decision was made by Fulton County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa. Despite the explicit warning earlier that morning and the more dire warning by Accuweather 12 hours earlier, he chose to send kids to school.

This may have been the domino that started the chain. Instead of a significant portion of the population staying home to care for young people, they went to work. And when the crisis was rapidly approaching its peak, those children were desperately trying to get home. And parents were desperately trying to get to them. Instead of no trips because everyone was safe in their warm houses, parents had to attempt what amounted to an extended drive with two destinations instead of just one – or none.

At the state level, no one seems sure what happened at GEMA (Georgia’s Emergency Management Agency). Based on local reports, its website was not updated with warnings until later in the day. And WSB-TVs Lori Geary reported the command center was quiet on Tuesday morning. Lack of warning may have given false confidence to the business community. Would you risk an entire day’s revenue if the state agency in charge of emergencies did not appear concerned?

Later that evening GEMA head Charley English admitted the center was not fully activated until 4:00pm. When asked why, he gave the mind-boggling response that conditions were not serious at that point. It is apparent that, if not ignored, the NWS warning earlier that morning was not given the attention it needed.

As the crisis built, where were the most visible leaders of the region and the state? Governor Deal and Kasim Reed were at an award luncheon at noon – around the same time, over a million people decided to escape the city.

This shows an appalling lack of awareness and both may pay a price politically. Mayor Reed was quick to defend that he had trucks working at 9:00am that morning and he is no doubt right. But he’s also a smart enough politician to understand you don’t graciously accept meaningless awards at a rubber chicken lunch when the city is teetering on chaos.

But of all the things that went wrong, here’s where Mayor Reed is right. The city streets were relatively clean. Unlike 2011 when the inner city was paralyzed for four days, Atlanta itself had streets working throughout the crisis and in under 24 hours was still a functioning city.

Ironically, that may be the reason things went so horribly wrong. People were able to get out of the city grid and onto the freeways and here is where hope was lost. As the news became national, video proliferated of “Atlanta”. I-75 into Cobb and the northern arc of the perimeter were shown on a continuous loop. The problem is neither is actually in the city of Atlanta.

To those of the outside world, “Atlanta” is a dot on a map. To those of us who live here it can mean as far south as Stockbridge and as far north as Jasper. As Atlanta Magazine’s Rebecca Burn’s noted, neither is actually the City of Atlanta.

And because the national media never provided this important context, the weather forecasters can rightly say they predicted the situation while never noting they didn’t predict it for the northern suburbs until very late in the game. And the national media can continue to beat up on Kasim Reed when he had exactly zero to do with state highways traversing north Fulton and Cobb.

It continues today. We are all Atlanta. Until the crisis passes and for the remainder of the year, we back into our respective corners and get very little accomplished in solving our traffic problems.

And here is the ultimate lesson from that horrid 24 hours – we didn’t have a weather problem. We had a traffic problem. As I indicated in the Peach Pundit Daily ( you can subscribe here ), we have no effective means of rapidly evacuating Atlanta. Emotional terror of not being able to reach your stranded child is inconceivable – actual terror with the possibility of substantial loss of life is exponentially worse.

Once the blame storm has passed, we have some hard questions to ask and they should center around the short term, why do we not have an effective evacuation plan, and long term, will we ever seriously examine why our transportation system is our greatest flaw.

*I’m a bit of a weather geek and even I made the mistake of saying the NWS “downgraded” us to an Advisory Tuesday night. Advisory is an upgrade. But ask yourself this, if a weather geek can get this confused, how many other people went to bed that night thinking it would be a non-event? Another problem is the way the NWS communicates and this should be reviewed. More emphasis should be placed on impact instead of vague nomenclature and the state should have an Emergency Response Meterologist for times like this.


  1. South Fulton Guy says:

    What the heck happened to GEMA’s response or lack thereof and did anyone else hear Nathan Deal throw Charley English, GEMA’s director under the bus?

    “But if that was the case, a reporter asked, why was the operations center for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency still closed when she stopped by after 3 p.m.?

    Charley English, GEMA’s director, was summoned to the mike. “At two and three o’clock yesterday, it still had not gotten terrible on the roads,” he said.

    It is not profitable for governors to be seen as having an arm’s length relationship with reality – not with so many witnesses still trapped on metro Atlanta roads. Right there in front of a hungry scrum of reporters, Deal contradicted his agency chief.

    “I was on the roads about that point in time, and it was getting to be gridlocked. The interstates were already experiencing major difficulties. Side roads that people were taking to get off were experiencing difficulties,” Deal said. “So we all have some lessons we need to learn here.”

    Behind Deal stood Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who in many ways acted as the governor’s attorney – offering a better defense of his client than the governor himself.”


    • Ellynn says:

      I would like to point out that the G stands for Georgia, not Metro Altlanta. Starting Monday night and before Tuesday noon, more then 1/4 of the state had bad roads. That command center is the state base, not a district comand center.

      • South Fulton Guy says:

        Ellynn Charlie English is currently apologizing in the Governor’s press conference and admitting he screwed up “I made a terrible mistake – I got it wrong by six hours”. I almost feel sorry as he speaks because the media is ripping him something fierce… They just asked him if he has considered RESIGNING and the Governor said he was not awakened…

        • tdk790 says:

          That was bad. Worse, perhaps, was General Butterworth saying he was at his house at 12noon on Tuesday… Wow.

  2. Did Fulton and Cobb stagger their closing times when they did close the schools? I noticed DeKalb did. They released elementary schools first, then high schools an hour later, then middle schools. I suppose with all the other problems going on it might not have made much difference but it would be interesting to know if it did.

    Gwinnett was largely spared. We got less snow and it starting snowing a bit later than the west side of town. Schools and businesses were able to react in time to avoid the serious problems seen in other areas.

    I left the Capitol at 1 PM and avoided 85 like a plague because it was already gridlocked downtown. I weaved my way through town and got on 85 north at Cheshire Bridge. 85 was flowing well there and all the way back to Lawrenceville. My total trip time was 3.5 hrs with most of that being in town trying to get to 85. I was one of the lucky ones.

    • Scott65 says:

      FYI…Cheshire Br Rd had been pretreated, unlike what is being portrayed in the media. I was there at 10am and noticed the bridges were already treated

    • Mike Stucka says:

      Many systems would *have* to stagger school closing times, because they don’t have the transportation fleet and staff to do otherwise. I don’t know if for sure that was the case in DeKalb or elsewhere, but it’s an important point to clarify before coming to any factual conclusions.

  3. Mid Georgia Retiree says:

    I’ve seen more than one comment about state snow removal equipment being “out of position”. Due to weather reports that initially and, until late Monday, put the storm as hitting Middle and South Georgia, that’s where a great deal of equipment was positioned. Could it have be re-positioned quicker? Possibly. However, it was placed where initial and frequent reports said it needed to be.

    • Ellynn says:

      The southeast GDOT district(30trucks for 27 counties, two interstates, the city of Savannah emergancy routes for the level 1 trama center, and half of the coastal islands) was working from Tuesday night until 11 AM this morning salting and graveling down intrestates and major bridges, including the the huge suckers over the Savannah River and in Brunswick – which had to stay open since no helicopters could fly out emerganies off the islands or out of lower South Carolina (which had a fatality in Bluffton). These are the ones most likely to be shipped to the Macon area so Macon’s can be moved to the metro.

  4. bkeahl says:

    As I recall, the NWS didn’t put anything out with ice/sleet until almost noon. The early AM alert did indicate a warning starting a 9:00am, but I don’t believe it predicted heavy snowfall early on.

    If the NWS had put out the 11:50 advisory at 3:45 the outcome would have been significantly different. Lets face it, pretty much everyone went to work, school, etc. Would they have done that had the NWS and news media said “ice” or “sleet” the previous day or early that morning?

    It didn’t help that the warning the NWS put out was in the middle of the night. I suspect many school administrators, receiving the nebulous 3:45 advisory, saw it as less chaotic to go 1/2 day and not try to cancel bus pickups as the bus drivers were already starting their routes. It would also give working parents time to make arrangements for their kids.

    We’ll be seeing more false flags from the NWS as they react to this by being more liberal in release these warnings. Everyone will be shutting down at the mention of snow for quite a while, and they’ll catch tons of heat if/when it doesn’t snow.

    All that being said, we so seldom have these storms that the models don’t have much historical/statistical data to use for forecasting this type of thing and I’m sure the NWS did the best they could with what they had.

  5. Dash Riptide says:

    Caesar Mitchell likewise thought that the threat to Atlanta had been downgraded.

    From “The Lead With Jake Tapper” yesterday afternoon:

    TAPPER: No, it’s remarkable, sir. But the thing is, despite what the mayor and governor have said, we absolutely knew this was coming. Our own meteorologist Chad Myers, based in Atlanta, was reporting on this 24 hours before it hit.

    When did you know something was terribly wrong with the preparation for the response?

    MITCHELL: Well, I will tell you, I’m someone who’s very interested in what’s going on with the weather. I have a wife. I have two very young daughters who are in school and I’m very concerned about their ability to get around, as I am with all the citizens of our city.

    And what I know happened, quite frankly — and this is where I think we have got some lessons learned here and some things that we will need to do going forward in a much better fashion to make sure this doesn’t happen in the future.

    But if you think about what happened, you laid this out at the beginning of your program. Earlier on Monday, you had a winter storm watch for the Atlanta area that was then downgraded to a winter weather advisory. I know this because I was watching the Weather Channel very closely on Monday evening.

    But then mid-morning, this situation got upgraded to a winter weather warning around 3:30 a.m., and not only upgraded to a winter weather warning. It was pushed up an hour. The question I think we will have to find out is what really happened during that time frame between when the status was upgraded from an advisory to a warning, and what protocols did we have in place that didn’t allow us to react in the way that we could have reacted?

    And I think that’s going to be the lesson for us, and we have got to figure this out.


    • Scott65 says:

      He is 100% correct…Jake Tapper needs to go back and look…nobody was ringing alarm bells for Atlanta 24hrs prior…nobody

      • Dash Riptide says:

        Okay, a) read the post again, because you’re wrong about the lack of early alarm bells, and 2) Caesar Mitchell, like Governor Deal, was 100% wrong about there being a downgrade. There was never a downgrade in the metro area. Again, read the post.

        • Scott65 says:

          I dont need to…there was a winter storm watch issued for the south metro NOT including Atlanta or to the north, then the watch was issued to include Atlanta. Monday afternoon the watch was DOWNGRADED to a winter weather advisory. The Winter Storm Warning was issued at 4am Tues. Those are facts, and quite verifiable. Go look at the archives…its all there. In fact…look at the PP archives. I mentioned a snow forecast Monday to crickets…in the morning reads on Monday

          • Dash Riptide says:

            Bless your heart. Let me copy and paste for you.

            *I’m a bit of a weather geek and even I made the mistake of saying the NWS “downgraded” us to an Advisory Tuesday night. Advisory is an upgrade.

            • Scott65 says:

              a weather advisory and a warning are not the same…advisory is less than a warning. The chronological facts are there…if you refuse to believe them its your problem not mine

            • Scott65 says:

              Tuesday night?? WTF is talking about Tues??? It was Monday…and glad you removed the rest of the garbage. Its helpful to show where you are cutting and pasting from

            • Scott65 says:

              Winter Storm Warning – Hazardous winter weather conditions that pose a *threat to life and/or property are occurring, imminent, or highly likely*. The generic term, winter storm warning, is used for a combination of two or more of the following winter weather events; heavy snow, freezing rain, sleet, and strong winds.[10] The Heavy Snow Warning and Sleet Warning have been deprecated in favor of issuing the Winter Storm Warning for Heavy Snow and Winter Storm Warning for Heavy Sleet, respectively.

              Winter Storm Watch – Hazardous winter weather conditions including significant accumulations of snow and/or freezing rain and/or sleet are possible generally within 48 hours. These watches are issued by the Weather Service Forecast Office.

              Winter Weather Advisory – Hazardous winter weather conditions are occurring, imminent, or likely. Conditions will cause a significant *inconvenience* and if caution is not exercised, may result in a potential threat to life and/or property. The generic term, winter weather advisory, is used for a combination of two or more of the following events; snow, freezing rain or freezing drizzle, sleet, and blowing snow.[12] The Snow Advisory, and Blowing Snow Advisory have been deprecated in favor of issuing the Winter Weather advisory for Snow and the Winter Weather Advisory for Snow and Blowing Snow, respectively.

                • Scott65 says:

                  Not making one…you are wrong. Threat to life and inconvenience are not equal in the real world…maybe in yours. I dont expect you to apologize. Not sure you are capable.

                • Dash Riptide says:

                  The Atlanta office can’t help but use the terminology required under agency protocols, but our excitable friend is only illustrating that the terminology is not descriptive enough. Another problem is that when the “advisory” is initiated, the “watch” is expressly “canceled.” They should stop that. Just let the advisory supersede the watch or expressly call it an upgrade. It truly does sound like a downgrade when the “watch” is “canceled,” and people don’t listen after that.

  6. South Fulton Guy says:

    T-SPLOST round two anyone?

    Much of the issue is road capacity and inadequate mass transit coupled with a simultaneous mass exodus.

    What do you think would happen if there was no snow or ice and they announced that a nuke was headed for downtown?

        • Charlie says:

          Will dig into details later, but the part of our proposal that calls for sub-regions or individual counties to have T-SPLOSTs, as well as eliminating the mandated single cent in favor of fractional pennies or extra pennies, helps exactly that.

          The TIAA T-SPLOST mandated the Atlanta “region” put Fulton & DeKalb in with Cherokee & Fayette. There is no way to get an exurban voter to support a project list with Transit. There’s no way to get an urban voter to support additional intersection improvements in the exurbs. It’s hard to sell this as a “community of interest”.

          If Fulton & DeKalb (maybe Clayton) had voted as a region, you would have a Beltline & Marta Extension to Emory and possibly to South DeKalb Mall and Bus or BRT to Clayton. Instead, we got nothing.

          • Scott65 says:

            I agree with you 100%…I had said from the get go that the T-SPLOST was designed by Perdue to fail. Fayette Co. does not have the same priorities as Dekalb…but Cobb and Gwinnett certainly do…and unless they want to do this all over again, its time for them to pull up a chair at the table and join the conversation

          • Max Power says:

            “There is no way to get an exurban voter to support a project list with Transit. ”

            And that’s the crux of the problem. If Nashville can have commuter rail all the way out to Lebanon, we should be able to have commuter rail to Canton, Cartersville, Gainsville, McDonough, or Peachtree City. But it’ll never happen, I’ve come to the conclusion that as a region and a state we can never get our act together. Prove me wrong Georgia.

            • Noway says:

              Max, I’m not familiar with the Nashville area, can you tell me how far places like Lebabon are from downtown Nashville. I lived in DC a while back and I lived off the last stop on the Orange Line, which was/is Fairfax. How far out does Nashville’s system go? If we’re talking Canton, Cartersville and Gainesville, they are quite a hike. Thanks!

              • Max Power says:

                Its about 30 miles from the river front staTion to Lebanon so cartetsville and Gainesville are further but Gainesville is much bigger catersville slightly smaller.

                • mpierce says:

                  Nashville (MusicCityStar) – $41M for 32 miles ($1.28M per mile)
                  TSPLOST Cumberland line – $856M for 12.8 miles ($66.88M per mile)
                  (Making it 5125% more expensive per mile)

                  The MusicCityStar needed a taxpayer bailout to stay afloat.

                  • Max Power says:

                    Well public transportation needs public support. They’re a public service like roads. As for the cost of the cumberland line, yes it’s way too expensive. You can’t build a new rail line through the priciest real estate in Atlanta. So that gives you two options elevated (think disney monorail) or commuter rail on existing freight tracks which could be done pretty easily and cheaply.

                    But this is Georgia and when there’s public money to be spent someone has to get rich.

                    • mpierce says:

                      So you agree that it didn’t make sense for Cobb to give 2/3rds of its TSPLOST money to a project that you admit is “way too expensive”?

                      Maybe the “crux of the problem” was more with the TSPLOST as opposed to the exurban voter?

                    • mpierce says:

                      Another note I should have mentioned. The $856M was for light rail, not like the existing MARTA rail.

                    • Max Power says:

                      Yeah, that’s an insane pricetag but it’s par for course for our incompetent government. Just to put it in perspective, that’s almost 1/5 the cost of the 134 mile TGV Mediterranee that travels at 190mph. However, it’s still less per mile than Seattle’s light rail. As I said we really only have a couple of realistic options for rail to the I75 corridor and it seems to me that commuter rail on existing tracks is the one to go with.

                    • mpierce says:

                      Using existing tracks is probably not feasible as they are heavily used by freight trains. As far as the other option, there is a maglev company in Cobb. They have made a couple of offers, but I haven’t looked into them to see if they were reasonable.

  7. Scott65 says:

    Two inaccuracies here. First I am disclosing that I am an Accuweather premium subscriber…so I’m not hatin on them, but most of the day Monday their headline read “Atlanta Misses Major Storm” It was removed late Monday and around 5pm the article about the I-10 storm was updated to include Atlanta in the impact…earlier it had said Atlanta and Charlotte would only receive a dusting at most.
    Second, a winter weather advisory is a DOWNGRADE from a winter storm watch that had been issued previously and cancelled. The warning came at 4am Tuesday as written.
    So schools should not have been in session.
    The glaring elephant in the room, however, is that if you had to take MARTA Rail to get home, you also had minor delays but not anything compared to by car. This kind of traffic will manifest itself no matter what disaster big or small happens upon us. Until we get serious about alternate forms of transit that are not affected by snow, its going to happen again…just like it did this time

    • griftdrift says:

      Sorry but you’re wrong.

      Accuweather may have had that at one point, but if you follow the link in the article, you will see a screen shot from Accuweather that they were forecasting the storm to hit ITP by Monday afternoon.

      Secondly, Advisory is an upgrade. Here is the sequence. Prior to 11:00pm Monday night Fulton was under a watch. That was upgraded to an Advisory at 11:00pm. Then to a warning at 3:55am.

      I got that wrong yesterday when talking about it on twitter. How do I know I got it wrong? Because people in the actual weather business told me I got it wrong. It’s also self evident if you read the definitions of Watch, Advisory and Warning.

      And if you actually read my article, it is plain that I am saying the forecasters did not predict the severity or detailed location until the 3:55am warning. But at that point the onus shifted to the municipal leaders.

      And ultimately you are proving my point. The NWS nomenclature is easily confused and that should be revisited. Instead of giving vague weather related pronouncements, they should talking about potential impact early.

      Also, it points out that instead of just updated with these vague phrases, we should have an EMR in constant communication with municipal leaders.

      • Will Durant says:

        I would love for someone to find the stats on how many NWS watches, warnings, advisories, etc. come to nothing. CYA tends to be their modus operandi.

        Although I will also accuse the television personalities that do weather for working the snow word into practically every winter forecast with an approaching front just to get you to watch the commercials. The boy who cried wolf syndrome was definitely a factor in this situation even if the television types will now hype who was most right or stayed on the air the longest, etc. in the coming weeks.

      • Bill Dawers says:

        James, thanks for this great post and your clear engagement in the comments.

        What’s striking to me is that so many different municipal leaders, all working more or less independently, ignored that 3:55 a.m. Winter Storm Warning that included almost all of “Atlanta”, broadly defined.

        How could so many school leaders claim ignorance of a forecast that was in place so early? Who sends the busses out when there is a Winter Storm Warning effective as of 9 a.m.?

  8. Dash Riptide says:

    Heh. It appears that even The Weather Channel’s Bryan Norcross doesn’t understand that replacing the watch with an advisory was an upgrade.

    “The meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Atlanta analyzed the weather pattern and the computer models quite well. Their discussions were clear enough in the days before the storm. It was a challenging forecast because Atlanta was on the northern edge of the snow, but the discussion of snow and a cold wind were always there. The day before the event, they had a Winter Storm Watch in effect for the city. They lowered it that night to a Winter Weather Advisory, a critical mistake in hindsight, and then put up the Winter Storm Warning in the middle of the night before the snow. So, it wasn’t perfect, but there was plenty of clear discussion of the possibility of a few inches of snow along with bitter cold temperatures.”


    What more proof do you need that the National Weather Service’s bureaucratic nomenclature needs a plain English overhaul? Even TWC meteorologists don’t understand it.

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