Thursday, January 30, 2014

"How We Lost Atlanta": A Little Perspective, Please

For the past 48 hours, Metropolitan Atlanta has been shut down due to what some have asserted is "two inches of snow."  Thousands of residents have spent the night in their cars, worried about loved ones not able to get home, and generally have had their lives disrupted. And now the blame game has begun. As someone who has made the area home for over 30 years, here are a few observations.

1. It's ice, not snow. Northerners love to say that Atlantans cannot drive in snow, which is ironic given that about half the folks who live here came from northern climes. The problem isn't snow. The problem is ice. During a winter weather event here, the temperatures tend to hover around freezing or just above during the day. We often get freezing rain. When we get snow, and even if the temperatures are below freezing, it tends to melt when it hits the ground. When the water freezes as the sun goes down, you end up with a sheet of ice, or, just as bad, black ice. I do not know anyone who can drive on a hockey rink.

2. Critiques over urban sprawl are interesting, but they are not going to change anything. Rebecca Burns, an Atlantan, wrote an interesting piece in Politico about the storm. Ms. Burns' history of Atlanta -- including her observations about the fact that metro Atlanta is actually a quilt of many towns and counties, its rejection of expanded mass transit, and its love of the automobile -- is quite accurate. That said, those observations and a critique of urban sprawl are not going to change anything, at least in the near to intermediate future.

Metro Atlanta is not going to become a European-style city where everyone lives downtown and mass transit is available everywhere. That said, the area has a lot going for it, including great universities, fantastic restaurants, world-class businesses and a great lifestyle. It has a low cost of living and young people can actually afford to buy houses.  Most of the time, the weather is good and is a reason why many of us live here. This weekend, temperatures are forecast to be in the 60s. If our mass transit is not up to what some would like and our traffic is bad (which it is), that is a relatively small price for living in a great area. No place is perfect. 

By the way, it is possible to live without a car in Atlanta. Several of my friends have recently moved to Midtown where they also work, and tell me they rarely use their car and are even thinking about going "car-less." However, you have to plan for such a lifestyle, and it does limit your choices.

3. This one was unexpected. If you have lived through more than a couple of winters in Atlanta, you know that things shut down quickly with the prediction of bad weather. Schools and businesses will close early. Somewhat comical runs on grocery stores are the norm. If anything, the tendency is to be too cautious. We know bad weather shuts down the city, we know the danger of ice, and we know to stay off the roads. 

The weather prediction Tuesday morning was that the storm would hit the Southern suburbs and areas south toward Macon, but would miss the vast majority of of the metro area. Flurries were predicted in the northern suburbs. Why did the fiasco happen? Because most everyone was at work and school assuming that there was no problem. When it became apparent around noon (give or take an hour) that the predictions were wrong, everyone headed out at once, as Ms. Burns correctly notes in her article. That and the rapidly worsening weather created the problem.

Was this metro Atlanta's shining hour? Of course not. Do Governor Deal and Mayor Reed wish they had a "do over"? Of course they do. Do the meteorologists? No doubt. Hindsight is always 20/20. We live our lives based on making reasonable assumptions. It was reasonable for people to go to work on Tuesday morning and it was reasonable to assume the storm would largely miss the metro area. 

Can we do better? Yes, but no one should be vilified over this.