The state’s top leaders on Wednesday apologized for mistakes that brought metro Atlanta to a standstill in the aftermath of an icy storm, but defended their reactions as a necessary response to unpredictable weather.
Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed are the target of considerable fury from residents stranded on roadways as minutes-long commutes turned into nasty all-evening affairs. In the face of that backlash, both politicians lamented the near-simultaneous release of school children, office workers and government employees.
Deal, who deemed his administration’s response to the snowstorm as “reasonable,” apologized for the gridlock gripping Atlanta streets. But he said if he would have been accused of “crying wolf” if he had ordered a shutdown and a storm didn’t materialize.
“We can never promise that we will always be correct when it comes to deciding what Mother Nature will do,” the governor said at a statehouse press conference. “She truly does have a mind of her own.”
Reed also said mistakes were made, but carefully suggested that the city wasn’t to shoulder them alone. He said emergency responders will in the future stagger the release of workers and students that led to the city’s worst traffic jam in decades.
“What I’m thinking of every moment is how to get people out of their cars,” Reed said.
A paramount concern were the students trapped in schools and buses across the region. At least 2,000 students were still stranded at schools early Tuesday and 95 buses were immobilized, but by 5:30 p.m. they had been returned to their families. Authorities said there has been one weather-related fatality, 1,254 car accidents and 130 injuries.
Both men defended the city’s response as improved since an ice storm in 2011 shut down the city for nearly a week and reiterated the biggest collective mistake was closing schools, businesses and government agencies at once. Those words, though, rang hollow to drivers stuck on clogged streets as commutes and stories of motorists forced to sleep in convenience stores or bunk in strangers’ homes echoed.
The epic traffic jam earned Atlanta considerable embarassing national attention. But Reed rebuffed a reporter’s suggestion that eyes were on Atlanta alone.
“I’m not going to get into the blame game, but the crisis that we are going through is across the region,” he said. “If you look at anybody’s street in any community across the entire region, there’s no one doing a better job than we are in the City of Atlanta.”
Speaking at a late-night press conference, Deal ordered state government shut down Wednesday and urged drivers to stay off the roads paralyzed by snow, portraying the weather as an “unexpected storm” that developed so quickly amid changing forecasts that officials struggled to respond.
Deal walked back those much-maligned comments on Wednesday saying, “I did not mean to imply we didn’t know something was coming.” He said changing forecasts caught state officials unaware, and that he should have listened to local metereologists rather than national forecasters.
Both Reed and Deal urged motorists to stay home again Thursday and let emergency crews respond to stranded drivers. Deal shut down state offices again on Thursday and pleaded for patience as crews work to unclog roads and stranded commuters make their ways home.
“I have told state employees to not report to their offices tomorrow in an effort to limit traffic,” he said. “I encourage others to do the same. With rising temperatures, we hope to return to normalcy tomorrow.”