Skip to main content

Atlanta's total lack of preparedness

By David Levinson
January 30, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
A rare snowstorm left thousands of motorists trapped on Atlanta interstates overnight. "Thank God I walk to work everyday," said <a href='http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1079053'>Doug Simonton</a>, who snapped this photo Tuesday afternoon. A rare snowstorm left thousands of motorists trapped on Atlanta interstates overnight. "Thank God I walk to work everyday," said Doug Simonton, who snapped this photo Tuesday afternoon.
HIDE CAPTION
Stranded in the snow: Scenes from the South
Stranded in the snow: Scenes from Atlanta
Stranded in the snow: Scenes from Atlanta
Stranded in the snow: Scenes from the South
Stranded in the snow: Scenes from the South
Stranded in the snow: Scenes from Atlanta
Stranded in the snow: Scenes from the South
Stranded in the snow: Scenes from the South
Stranded in the snow: Scenes from the South
Stranded in the snow: Scenes from the South
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Levinson: Atlanta area should have been prepared for the weather
  • He says Atlanta gets little snow, but gets weather forecasts. Storm was not a surprise
  • Officials should have kept people off the roads, Levinson says
  • Levinson: Real leaders aren't insecure about risking such decisions

Editor's note: David Levinson is a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Minnesota and director of the Networks, Economics and Urban Systems Research Group, or NEXUS. He has authored or edited several books, including "Planning for Place and Plexus: Metropolitan Land Use and Transport." He is the editor of the Journal of Transport and Land Use. He blogs at Transportationist.

(CNN) -- It's just water.

Of course it is frozen in the form of ice. Driving on ice is a fool's errand. On ice it is hard to stop (or start) moving. On ice, vehicle control is difficult at best. You don't need to be a transportation engineer to know that crashes increase with snow and especially ice, with its reduced friction. The problem is not that Atlanta got snow, but that the snow turned into ice.

Should Atlanta have been better prepared? In retrospect, the answer is obvious. In prospect it should have been as well.

David Levinson
David Levinson

While it's hot in the summer, Atlanta is in the foothills of the Appalachians, not the beaches of the Caribbean. In the past eight decades, it has snowed 4 inches or more 11 times in Atlanta. There are periodic ice storms. According to Weatherspark, the average low temperature in January is 34 degrees F, just above freezing. In other words, half the time in January the daytime low is below 34.

I lived in Atlanta for five years. As a freshman, I remember a cold spell in January 1985, when Ronald Reagan's second inauguration was canceled in Washington because of cold, and Georgia Tech, where I was a student, had a delayed opening because it was 8 degrees. So winter is something that leaders should be aware of in Georgia.

Atlanta does not get as much snow as Minneapolis, my current home, and where we have stared down a polar vortex, and are now blanketed with about 2 feet of snow. Atlanta is certainly not as cold as Minneapolis, where unusually, school was canceled two days this week, and five days this school year, and we now look at ice planet Hoth (where Luke Skywalker and friends were based at the opening of "The Empire Strikes Back") as an improvement. But Atlanta still experiences winter. Atlanta still has access to forecasts from the National Weather Service. This storm was not a surprise.

Blizzard of blame

There are several strategies for dealing with ice storms.

Ice storm chaos in Atlanta
Dude, where's my car?

Officials could have tried to prevent the ice. Unfortunately weather control is not yet very practical.

The city and state could have tried to mitigate the ice. There are many techniques for salting and sanding roads that either prevent ice from forming, melt the ice or make it easier to travel on ice. This requires a fleet of vehicles and drivers that are prepared well before the weather event and that continue to be deployed until the roads are cleared.

The risk is the city and state spend money on preparations for bad weather that does not come. Such spending is standard operating procedure in northern cities such as Minneapolis, where snow and ice are almost guaranteed, but it may not be worthwhile if the ice is infrequent.

Opinion: When 2.6 inches of snow made hell freeze over

Atlanta could have tried to avoid the ice. If officials knew ice was coming (and they should have, the weather forecasts were not highly guarded state secrets), they should have canceled schools and encouraged people to stay home. The risk is you cancel school and it only rains, or the storm changes course. Officials who cancel school, only to see the weather improve, look bad, are considered "fraidy-cats," will be mocked by talking heads and Monday morning quarterbacks, and more importantly will have a harder time making the right decision the next time.

A real leader is not so insecure. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned his city about Sandy despite perhaps being (in retrospect) too conservative in his warnings about Irene.

Is missing a day of school, or working from home instead of the office really the end of the world?
David Levinson

In the end, we should ask: Is missing a day of school, or working from home instead of the office really the end of the world?

Instead what officials in Georgia did was accept the damage (in the form of traffic congestion, crashes, people sleeping in place in their cars and schools instead of at home) caused by the ice. This outcome required no advance preparation or forethought. In fact a debacle of this magnitude required a careful absence of preparation.

Worse, everything shut down at once. Dismissals were not coordinated, exacerbating congestion. In the end though, the main problem was not that everyone left work and school at the same time. The problem was they were all there in the first place.

In the long term, the Atlanta area could do much more to avoid its routine congestion. But in the short term, if you cannot prevent the special congestion caused by the weather, avoid it.

Is weather getting weirder? I don't know.

Is weather getting more predictable? Most definitely. The science is improving, and the measurements are getting more precise, and there are many more of them, all of which make short-range forecasts very accurate. Our politicians should listen to the scientists sometimes.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Levinson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT