Observations from Atlanta Mega-Gridlock 2014

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Time to be real now – the hand wringing over the so-called “Snowjam” which paralyzed Atlanta (as well as several cities in Florida and across the Southeast) has begun.  Now, this entry is based entirely on personal experience and, considering the fact I was on the road for nine damned hours before I actually was able to get off the freeway and to some semblance of shelter, I believe my opinion holds some weight.  That said, here are some things to consider.

You can’t entirely blame Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Governor Nathan Deal.  “The Mayor,” as he was referred to in his election campaign ads, only has so much control over what happens.  Yes, he could have ordered Atlanta Public Schools closed, and non-essential city employees stay home, but that’s really about the extent of his authority.  Governor Nathan Deal could only do so much as well. Could this have been handled better?  Yes, and that said, Deal will pay for it at the polls this November, guaranteed.  That said, other officials, especially DOT and local school boards, need to step up and admit they should have done better.  Seriously, kids stuck in school buses because school boards were afraid of hearing parent’s grief about a premature closing call?  Unacceptable.

Let’s face it – the region panicked!  Yes, I’m guilty of it too!  We all have a giant amount of egg on our face.  You can’t expect to have a half million people hit the road all at once in Atlanta and get anywhere, period!  The highway system is already maxed out in terms of capacity.  We poured water into a full bucket and it overflowed, plain and simple.  All you need for proof of this is to see the pictures of the Downtown Connector (I-75/85) at midnight Tuesday – it should have been renamed the Eisenhower Parking System because that’s what it was; a sixteen lane parking lot!

The Outer Perimeter just had a major case of CPR performed on it!  The so-called “Outer Perimeter” project, which so many environmentalists have battled against, may have actually gotten new life from, of all things, the environment.  Had an outer loop for all the through truck traffic been up and running now, it is entirely conceivable that seventy percent of the big rig traffic which helped to cripple the freeway system would have been redirected from Atlanta and, consequently, taken a critical amount of pressure off I-285.

We got a painful refresher in the Laws of Physics.  When an 80,000 lb. big rig doesn’t gain enough speed going into a valley, it is not going to get up an ice-laden hill, period.  Six Flags Hill on I-20 was proof enough but, in case you missed the first class, I-75 at Paces Ferry provided a remedial course in the laws of inertia.  This isn’t Ice Road Truckers, folks:  these machines were not equipped to handle these conditions.

Believe it or not, Southerners really can drive in winter weather!  I saw plenty of examples of Southerners and, in particular, native Georgians doing a magnificent job of negotiating the treacherous ice patches of this area.  In fact, had it not been for some of these folks, I would not have found some good traction spots for my little compact and would have spun out a few times.  Let’s face it, my fellow Yankees; as much as we want to think it, we don’t know everything!

Truckers are supposed to be professionals; emphasis on “supposed to be.”  I know a lot of super professional, courteous, nice truckers who will do anything to help a stranded or distressed motorist, but there were just as many jerks on the road who were cutting people off, going too fast, up and downshifting at horrid times, and just being flat-out idiots on the road.  Having been around trucks and rigs most of my life, you can tell the oldtimers from the newbies; oldtimers may play fast-and-loose with some of the DOT regs, but they are, by and large, by-the-book at crunch time.  The newer drivers are by-the-book on good days, but tend to get squirrely and panick in the shit.

Weather really is part-art, part science.  The old weather credo is a prediction more than 48 hours out is worth the paper it’s written on.  Not only did this storm prove that, it also exposed one of the dirty secrets of television weather reports; most of the meteorologists rely solely on computer models, and focus instead on looking good on camera.  The old-timers in the business are far better at combining experience with forecast models to produce real, credible forecasts.   The rest?  A job with The Weather Channel may be in the future.

And the final observation, and maybe the most stunning:

When everyday Americans are faced with overwhelming odds, magic happens!  I stayed at a Home Depot in Dunwoody, Georgia Tuesday night when the company’s home office in Atlanta announced that several locations would become shelters for stranded motorists.  A kind gesture turned into a wonderful emergency experience when store-level management made sure we were made comfortable, allowed to charge our cellphones using store power, given blanket permission to call loved ones, and even went to so far as to make sure we had snacks and drinks, as well a semblance of comfort for sleeping arrangements.  Nobody complained, and people actually laughed and swapped stories of harrowing tales of weather woe.  When American business allows their frontline management team to improvise within common sense, some great things (and great public relations) can come of it!

There is no doubt that Snowjam, Snowpocalypse, The Great Atlanta Cluster ____, whatever you want to call it, will be remembered for generations to come.  There is also no doubt that there will be recriminations on this for months to come, but the fact is that this storm and the ensuing mega-gridlock proved when faced with remarkable adversity, Americans are amazingly resilient.  This experience made me remember how George Washington and the Continental Army crossed the Delaware in 1776, a year which seems to rival 2014 in terms of intensity of cold weather.  Then, as now, adversity brought everyone together and, at least in this case, reassured me of the kindess, generosity and good-spirited ingenuity of Americans.  It also proved that, when the chips really are down and government can’t save the day, we everyday Americans really can pull together like no other nation on this earth.

Let’s just hope we don’t have to worry about something like this showing us have what it takes to make it happen for many years to come.

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