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Georgia Press Conference; Forecasters Blamed

Aired January 29, 2014 - 12:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


REPORTER: Rather than after?

GOV. NATHAN DEAL (R), GEORGIA: Well, we did not think it was justified to do so. We were putting all of our resources in play without the official declaration. The official declaration doesn't really do anything in terms of getting outside help or whatever.

All it does is simply say that the state's resources will be available to local levels of government if they chose to ask us for that. And there were minimal requests, even now, from local levels of government for additional state assistance.

REPORTER: But couldn't that have kept people off the roads, though? If you declare a state of emergency and tell people to stay home, would that not have kept people - South Carolina, other states are dealing with the same sort of issue that we're dealing with and they declared a state of emergency before the storm hit.

DEAL: You may be right. And that is a lesson that we need to look at and see whether or not it would have made a difference in this circumstance.

REPORTER: And if I could follow up on that point, governor.

DEAL: Sure.

REPORTER: I was at GEMA yesterday between 3:30 and 4:00 trying to get into the emergency ops center but they said it wasn't activated. That was at 3:30 to 4:00 and they told me that because there wasn't an emergency. Maybe Mr. English could address that. How could you say there wasn't an emergency when kids were stranded at schools and in school buses at that time?

DEAL: Charlie, you want to answer?

CHARLIE ENGLISH, DIRECTOR, GEMA/HOMELAND SECURITY: Yes, sir.

The state operation center was partially activated. And that means that some key state agencies were in place. And we were talking to even more of those people over the phone and through e-mail and things of that nature and we were still gearing up for the response, because at 2:00 or 3:00 yesterday, it had still not gotten terrible on the roads.

REPORTER: At 3:30 or 4:00 it wasn't terrible on the roads? Is that what you're saying?

ENGLISH: Not by - yes, it wasn't as gridlocked as it is now.

REPORTER: Governor, do you agree with that?

DEAL: I'm afraid I don't, because 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 trying to take to get off were experiencing difficulties. So, you know, we all have some lessons we need to learn here from this. And I think we all will take that away.

Whether or not the declaration would have changed the circumstances, is a question I don't know the total answer to. We will talk with other departments, such as local school superintendents, as to whether or not they would have made a determination on their part had a declaration been issued earlier. I don't know whether that would have been the case or not.

But certainly all of that is the kind of thing that we have to evaluate and will dictate whether or not we react in a different fashion at another point in time. Hopefully it will not happen any time soon, but obviously this one is a bad situation. We're trying to deal with the realities now.

REPORTER: Governor, three years ago you also said that -

REPORTER: Now, governor, you (INAUDIBLE) - governor, you said that you don't blame anyone, but some people are blaming you for the gridlock that we're seeing and the perception across the country is that Georgia can't handle a storm like this. Even Al Roker said that this is the result of poor preplanning. Would (ph) you respond?

DEAL: Well, I'm willing to take whatever blame comes my way. And if I'm responsible for it, I'll accept that.

I think the important thing to understand, though, is that we have geared up by way of resources. The mayor has already outlined that as to what the city has done since 2011 when we had a similar storm. The state has also done that as well through DOT and, of course, here again, calling in the National Guard and the assistance of the State Patrol. With the amount of equipment that is out there, we have much more equipment available. The problem was, though, the equipment could not function with so many people on the roadway and unable to move.

Now, I don't know the best way to solve that, other than to start taking it gradually to unclog that part of congestion. And that's the approach that we've been taking. And those large trucks are a major portion of it. And maybe I should ask Keith to talk to you about what could be done in terms of preparing them to either avoid an area such as this in a time of crisis with a storm, or whether or not there are requirements that they should maybe have chains on their - on the wheels in order to avoid these jack-knifes.

Keith. REPORTER: Governor, (INAUDIBLE) Mayor Reed earlier said that he thought that there error was in that everybody was let out at the same time. Do you agree, a, or, b, do you think there were any errors made?

DEAL: Well, obviously, there were errors. If you -- I think that the mayor used a very descriptive term. It's like somebody blew a whistle and everybody decided to leave at the same time. And that's exactly what happened. Whether or not if we had blown the whistle a little earlier, could we have avoided that? I don't know the answer to that.

REPORTER: Did you make the right call?

DEAL: Well, I think we did under the circumstances of what we knew at that time. We alerted our state employees so that they could leave earlier, get them off the roadways if they were in a position to be able to leave. You know, we just got to learn the lessons from this. And they're hard lessons. And every situation manifests itself differently. It's not always the same way. We have always had emergency plans in place. Sometimes they're adequate. Sometimes they're not.

Let me ask Keith, though, to talk about the situation with the 18- wheelers.

KEITH GOLDEN, GEORGIA D.O.T.; Thank you, governor.

DEAL: Yes.

GOLDEN: Yes, after the 2011 event, which was really a totally different event. That event started at night on like a Sunday night, Monday morning. We had about five inches of accumulation very quickly. Temperatures dropped and that turned into an ice pack and then we didn't get above freezing for over four days. Really different event than the one we had today. So to compare the two it's not necessarily totally fair.

But what we did do after 2011 in legislation is 2011 we actually noticed that trucks were a problem and we continue to work on that. So we actually got a statute passed that said that we could require chains on tractor-trailers if we did signing (ph) coming into the region. And so that statute was passed. But it's very difficult to do that. You have you remember, the interstates are built to move commerce. And that's the primary purpose of them.

So looking at the event at, you know, 4:00 and 5:00 in the morning and knowing that we were looking for dustings or light dustings, maybe up to two inches, would not have changed our response in that particular thing. As the governor said, for us, at the Department of Transportation, we wouldn't have changed anything because we were still expecting heavy accumulation south of Georgia.

Whether it was two inches north in Cherokee or one inch north of Cherokee or, you know, we were looking at three to six inches down in the middle part of the state. So we could not have repositioned any of our folks. So, I don't know that we would have activated that. That's something that we're going to be working with the Department of Public Safety on and trying to determine, when's the best time to make that call to require tractor-trailers to have chains and to make sure that when they come into the area they actually have the ability to have the traction and not have the impacts.

REPORTER: Were you able to stop any of the trucks from coming in? At the point in time where everything was just shut down, were you able - are you able to stop the tractor-trailers from coming back into town?

GOLDEN: We started posting signage early yesterday afternoon advising tractor-trailers that they should have chains. And many did add chains to their thing (ph). Most of them do have chains as a part of their actual systems. And so we started doing that.

We did not make it a mandatory event. And we talked with the colonel about maybe in the next event what we would do differently and how we might - can make that call.

REPORTER: So do you -

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE) about your communications strategy. Did you or Mr. English ever have a conversation before this all happened to anticipate the possibility that on a weekday, on a workday, that you might have what seems to be the catalyst, which was everybody hitting the roads at once, to communicate before then to avoid that?

GOLDEN: I don't know that we went down to that level of planning, but we always take all kinds of scenarios into play. You know this is - I think many people remember in 1982 we had a similar event where many people were trapped like this trying to get home from work and had to do a lot of walking.

So - but you always try to take into consideration any type of options that might have to do or any kind of scenarios. And I think that those are always taken -- yesterday, as I mentioned with the governor in speaking to him that it was very challenging for us, again, that congestion did not allow us to get out and do the treatment. And I would second his notion that, you know, the actual delay of us getting out there was really driven by the traffic. And the --

REPORTER: I'm talking about communication to drivers, communication to the general public, don't go out on the roads, which there seem to have been little snippets in a broadcast here or a (INAUDIBLE) press release there, but never - never this, you know, getting to the bully pulpit and saying, stay off the roads tomorrow, folks.

GOLDEN: Right. And -

REPORTER: Did you have that conversation?

GOLDEN: No.

REPORTER: It's not a surprise that when everyone -- REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE) the frustration (INAUDIBLE) from people who call us, who e-mail us, you're looking at people that were covering the 1982 storm, and Atlanta citizens, long-time citizens that say, we've been through this before. We saw this in '82. When the storm was coming in and everybody was in the middle of the work day and you remember how that turned out, nine, 12, 15-hour drives.

GOLDEN: True.

REPORTER: The question that we keep hearing over and over, why don't we learn anything in this state and in this city? Why is it we're so caught off guard apparently every time one of these storms hits?

MAYOR KASIM REED (D), ATLANTA: I think we do need to address that a little bit. Having been through the 2011 experience, which was four days then, we are far more activated faster than we ever were in '11. I don't - I don't - I was alive in '82, but I wasn't leading anything.

So the question is, there is no question if you go back to 2011, and you all pull all of your film, that the first two days we didn't do anything. And I take my share of blame. We started sanding at 9:00 a.m. after the alert on sand and gravel. So we fully mobilized all of our equipment and we started partnering with the state by 10:00, 11:00 a.m.

Now, I understand that people are frustrated and angry, but, you know, I couldn't stand here knowing that I was here in '11 and everybody thought the first two days of '11 was funny. I mean it was like a -- because it was Sunday night when it happened. Five inches came, four inches came. Everybody knew the first two days were off. And then by the third day, I can tell you, it wasn't funny anymore. And you all didn't think it was funny.

We're in day one. We're at about hour 16 right now. One hundred and twenty pieces of state equipment have been mobilized. The National Guard has been mobilized. The city of Atlanta has been running 12-hour shifts. We've been running our spreaders and sanders nonstop.

The issue is, and people are going to stop feeling frustration when we get people out of cars on the interstates. And, you know, I'll take credit for -- I'll take credit or blame for my statement. We made a mistake by not staggering when people should leave. So, I'll take responsibility for that. We should - and lessons learned, because I know folks want to know that we're at least learning from this.

Please remind (ph) that we're definitely better than we were in '11, and faster. But if we had it to do again, we would have said, schools, you go out, you go first. Private sector businesses, you go second. And government goes last. And so I think that that would have helped and we should have been much clearer on our need to access the roads.

REPORTER: And, mayor, that's where I think people are frustrated about --

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE) important to be proactive rather than reactive. You're talking about letting people - CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: All right, we're going to break away from this press conference involving Atlanta's mayor and the governor of the state of Georgia, Nathan Deal.

Hello, everyone. I'm Carol Costello.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: And, good morning. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Or good afternoon to a lot of you on the East Coast.

My goodness. I think the word that comes to mind is mess, and that's putting it nicely, Carol Costello.

COSTELLO: I think it's apocalyptic.

BALDWIN: Apocalyptic.

COSTELLO: And there was only two inches of snow.

BALDWIN: You find the noun or adjective. These are pictures that we continue to see in the metro Atlanta area. This is the story of the day. And I know a lot of people outside the Georgia area are shaking their heads wondering how this could happen with two inches of snow. Let me tell you, people within Atlanta are shaking their heads and wondering the exact same thing.

You just heard from the governor and the mayor specifically. And we'll play part of your interview, Carol Costello, with Mayor Kasim Reed. You were tough and rightly so because there are a lot of criticisms about blame deflection when it comes to city and state-wide government. So we're going to get to that.

But first, Chad Myers is on the phone. He is -- we sent you, Chad, to New Orleans because of the icy cold conditions there. Little did we know the story would really be back here, CNN world headquarters in Atlanta. But I want you to respond to the city officials and the statewide officials who constantly say, nope, they got it wrong. The meteorologists got it wrong. The National Weather Service got it wrong. We didn't know it would be this bad. Your response.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST (via telephone): The forecast was one to two inches, Brooke. And we got 2.3. If that's wrong, then I take credit for being wrong. But at 2.3, when I said one to two, I think that's OK. And it came down at a time, at 1:00 to 2:00, when everybody tried to leave at the same time. And the mayor and the governor both had it right just now when they said, we should not have let everybody out at the same time.

On a normal Friday, if I ring a bell at 2:00 in Atlanta and I say go, and everybody has to leave their house and leave their building and leave their work to go and get their kids, to go get to food, to do whatever, you're going to have a three-hour backup. No question, on a regular, sunny day. You (INAUDIBLE) any day out of that, all the (INAUDIBLE) back up.

COSTELLO: Yes, but here's -- here's the thing -- here's the thing, Chad. Here's the - here's the thing, Chad. MYERS: Go ahead.

COSTELLO: OK. So Governor Deal said that he -- you know, he can't predict mother nature. We didn't know. Somebody blew that whistle for everyone to go home at the same time. And the governor and the mayor seem to be blaming you guys, the meteorologists, because you didn't predict the precise time that it would get nasty here in Atlanta, Georgia.

MYERS: You know, that's right, we said between noon and 3:00. And it happened at 1:30. So, we really did miss that one.

COSTELLO: You know, I just -- it just - it boggles the mind.

MYERS: I - I shake my head.

COSTELLO: Something else to ask you about, because I know you know about these things. The salting of the road. Everyone I spoke to today did not see one salt truck on the roadways. Now, Mayor Kasim Reed insists that they started spreading salt on the roadways at 9:00.

Now, it didn't start snowing until about, oh, 1:00, per se, right? And at that time everybody left, which meant the salt trucks couldn't get through the traffic to re-salt the roads.

What effect do you think that had, Chad?

MYERS (via telephone): Well, I grew up in Buffalo. Let me tell you, when we knew snow was coming, the roads were white before it snowed, because they salted the heck out of everything when they knew snow was coming so that those first snowflakes didn't stick at all, and we had a good brine.

This is an issue where nobody wants to take responsibility. These are my streets. No, those are your streets. We don't care of the interstates. Someone has to do everything at some point in time.

But of the thousands of miles of roads in Atlanta, we simply have never purchased the amount of equipment necessary. Why would you, in a city that gets one snow event every three years, why would you buy 500 snowplows and salt trucks and have them sit around for a thousand days, waiting for the next event?

That's the issue. We just don't have the ability to salt like a northern city does.

BALDWIN: Here's my next question, before everyone really begins the Monday morning-quarterbacking process.

We're still in this. There are still a.m., many, many cars stuck on the highways. As I'm looking at the clock, it's just noon in Atlanta right now. We're about six hours away from when the sun begins to set.

I walked into work today. It's icy. It is snowy. I wonder if this is going to go into day two. MYERS (via telephone): Absolutely, without a question. 285 on the north side of Atlanta, especially westbound, trying to get from 85 all the way over to 75 on the north, it's an east-to-westbound road.

It's still stopped and those cars have been stopped for 22 hours, and they are simply not going. And half the cars are abandoned in front of all the cars that can go.

So, there's no way to get those abandoned vehicles out of the way except one tow truck at a time. There are hundreds of cars on every hill in Atlanta that just couldn't get up last night.

At 10:00, it was down to 17 degrees. Snow turned into ice. Every time a car ran into a little bit of snow, it pack it down and made it more slippery.

Oh, yeah, this is still a couple more days to go. I'm worried about those stuck in cars without medication, babies without diapers, babies without medication.

And now we're looking at 24 hours from now, pretty soon, from when they possibly got stuck without medication. And I know we have one fatality but I'm concerned with people in those cars running out of gas, running out of heat and running out of hope.

COSTELLO: Luckily they finally called in the National Guard late last night, the National Guard on the highway. Interestingly enough, they're passing out MREs to drivers so they have something to eat.

The problem is, have you these giant tractor-trailers. Some are broken down. Some are jack-knifed so the cars can't get past them. The salt trucks have to get up to these trucks to put salt on the roads so the trucks can begin moving. Until that happens, no one's going anywhere.

MYERS (via telephone): Correct. And I -- the epitome of a salt truck in Atlanta is two guys, one guy in the front of a pickup, one guy in the back of a pickup with a shovel and a pile of salt.

And they drive around the streets. They shovel the shovel with a little salt and spread it behind the pickup truck. That's the way Atlanta gets salt on some of its roads.

It's a ridiculous situation, and in Buffalo, this doesn't happen. Everybody's home and having dinner last night in Buffalo.

But, Atlanta, because they didn't salt the streets ahead of time enough and they don't have equipment to do 4,000 miles worth of roads all at one time, this is what we're in right now.

BALDWIN: The word we missed yesterday was staggering, staggering the schools, staggering the government agencies, staggering businesses, leaving and making sure the timing of the few snowplows we do have.

Listen, I'm from Atlanta. This isn't something we experience. I get that, OK? But it should have been done differently and blame should be taken. And it doesn't sound like it is yet. The frustration, I hear it from you on social media, from our own colleagues who were stuck in this. Chad mentioned mothers in cars with baby.

How about the lady who had to give birth on the side of one of our major freeways last night with the Sandy Springs police officer and the father helping the process to get to the hospital with baby Grace? By the way, baby Grace is apparently doing OK.

But you're looking at these pictures and we all across the country just -- you think about people in California who oftentimes don't get rain.

There are different situations. I'm sure some people can relate to this. We hope at the end of the day you can't. We hope this is a one- time thing.

COSTELLO: Wouldn't it be nice to hear some politician say, you know what? We screwed up. I don't know what we were thinking.

But we really need to work together better. We need to communicate better.

But no one is saying that. Governor Deal is blaming meteorologists. Mayor Kasim Reed sort of accepted blame at that press conference, not really, because he's saying that he's not responsible for the highways. He's responsible for the city of Atlanta.

We're going to have much more on that. We're going to talk to Lieutenant General Russel Honore.

BALDWIN: Russel Honore, he knows a thing or two about disasters, helped get the troops together in the midst of and after Katrina.

Ashleigh Banfield was talking to him. She'll pick up that conversation.

A lot more to go, the stories just keep coming in as people sleeping Home Depots, under blankets, using toilet paper as a pillow. That's coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BALDWIN: Welcome back as we're covering what we're calling the Deep Freeze of 2014.

Have some new numbers in from the state of Alabama as we talk about this winter weather. We now have five confirmed winter-related deaths for that state.

As we continue to update that information, let me just take you back to Georgia, because, as you look at these pictures, hundreds of National Guard troops are now out and about, on foot, on Georgia's highways, walking car to car, trying to help folks who are stranded.

Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) CAPTAIN DARRYL GRIFFING, NATIONAL GUARD: First priority was look for people that were stranded, you know, hadn't had any food or water and to bring that to them, you know, if we could.

If they needed to go to a shelter, we try to find out where the closest one was for them, direct them there, any type of coordination we could do with the local police or state patrol that was out here with us.

There were some hero units out here as well. In a few instances, for some smaller vehicles, we had an opportunity where we might have been able to give them a little tow to get them unstuck or just use our own man power while we were out here.

That's mostly what we've been trying to do, the basic stuff, keeping people safe, especially for the ones that have been out here since yesterday afternoon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How long have you guys been out here? And how many? You're with the 48th Brigade?

GRIFFING: 48th Brigade. I'm with the 148th Brigade Support Battalion of the 48th Brigade.

We got on the road at Macon at 2 a.m., heading this way, and our mission for the four-crew team that I have out here, these two Humvees, our mission was I-75 between 285 South all the way up to I- 20, right through there.

That's what we've been running up and down for the night, trying to find stranded motorists, help them out any way we can. Let them know what's available.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is this you're holding here?

GRIFFING: For the ones that need it, we've got the Meals Ready to Eat, what we call the MREs. These are just -- it's got stuff in there, just basic nutrition.

That's what your soldiers are eating in Afghanistan when they're out on patrols and everything else.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They can open it and start eating it?

GRIFFING: They can open it up. There are parts in there -- everything that's in there, they can go ahead and start to eat.

If they have water with them or we can give them water, they can heat it up with the heater that's activated by water here. So we do that as well.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're going to be out here all day?

GRIFFING: You know, we'll have to -- we'll have to rotate out, but the Georgia Guard and 48th Brigade will be out here.

We'll stay out here until our mission is over, you know, until it's completed and the governor says he doesn't need us anymore.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If people are stranded and they need assistance from you, is there a number they can call? Do they just have to wait for a Humvee to come by?

GRIFFING: It's still 911.

And what's been happening, I believe they've got the -- the GEMA has been activated, you know, Georgia Emergency Management Agency, and everything for us, how we get missioned or how we get tasked, all goes through that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK.

GRIFFING: So, that's what we wait for.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Looks like your guys are taking water to those people on that bus there.

GRIFFING: Right. Yeah. We try to take advantage -- we've got limited resources out here.

Like I said, we've been out here for a while now, but we look for, you know, whatever we can help out.

You know, earlier today we actually had a couple out here that had two infants with them, and they had run out of water so they couldn't make formula. Luckily, we were able to provide some water for them.

So, that was one of the really good ones, doing something like that. You always want to make sure the kids are taken care of.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Most definitely.

GRIFFING: We have some people, we'll put them in the Humvee just to warm up. We've got some wool blankets. Anything we can provide, we'll take care of them.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: All right. Thank goodness the National Guard is there because he is helping people, he and his fellow National Guardsmen, helping people who have been trapped on that highway since yesterday afternoon. It's crazy.

One man says, it's unconscionable. Let's head to New York and check in with Ashleigh Banfield. I'm talking about Lieutenant General Russel Honore.

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN CO-ANCHOR: Yeah. Did you see that National Guardsman trying to walk across that roadway? His boots were slipping. Imagine a truck or semi. Remarkable.

One thing as I was listening to the live news conference with the Georgia governor and a couple of the other officials, the Atlanta mayor as well, they were happily listing off all the things they are doing now and how successful this reaction has been or continues to be.

But nobody seemed to really want to dig in to why there has to be a reaction at all. Why are we in this boat? Why is the National Guard having to hand out MREs and water so an infant can get formula on a roadway almost 24 hours after the fact?

I want to bring in the guy who can probably answer this best, retired Lieutenant General Russel Honore.

Just before the news conference, General, you and I were digging into that very fact. You said something very profound that was cut off by the governor as he began the news conference.

You said that this is an area dealing with a 19th century system of government and 21st century problems. I would like you to expand on that. If you can, tell me why we're getting so much blame deflection.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL RUSSEL HONORE, U.S. ARMY (RETIRED): Well, there's decentralized government we have around Atlanta, as it was formed in the mid-19th century.

Here we are in the 21st century with 5 million people who work in and around the Beltway there in Atlanta, inside the perimeter, and people come in there -- when you fly into the city, you hear a great message from the mayor, welcome to Atlanta.

But when something bad happens like this, you figure out the downside of having all this decentralized government.

Atlanta needs to move on. Georgia needs to move on. They need to have in Atlanta the same type of government you have in New York City where the mayor controls the city and everything around that city, and the mayor can make decisions on road closures. He has emergency powers as far as when the school closed.

We don't have that in Atlanta. We've got a lot of small governments run by the counties, and as a result of that, this has made this problem worse.

Mother Nature had a vote here, but in no way those schools should have even opened yesterday.