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Cold and Chaos on Highways; Interview with Mayor Kasim Reed

Aired January 29, 2014 - 09:30   ET


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Thank you so much for joining me. I'm Carol Costello.

Of course, we're talking about the weather and the absolute mess it is in the city of Atlanta. The entire city, paralyzed. The suburbs, paralyzed. All because of what some are calling poor planning by city and state officials. People have been trapped in their cars for up to 15 hours. They simply cannot move on Atlanta's highways and byways. The streets are a mess. Ice is very thick now. It's very dangerous to drive. The citizens here are asking, who's to blame? Why wasn't there a better plan? Earlier this morning on "New Day," Kate Bolduan and I had a chance to ask that very question of Matthew Kallmyer. He's the director of Atlanta's Emergency Management Agency. Here it is.


MATTHEW KALLMYER, DIR., ATLANTA-FULTON COUNTY EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY (via telephone): I want to say we were caught off guard. A lot of information was shared by the National Weather Service and one of the things that we take pride in is that we pushed that information to not only of our internal, but also our external partners and to help them make informed decisions on what they're going to do. Federal executive board made a tremendous decision to let employees go at a very early hour and that was followed suit shortly thereafter by the local jurisdictions, mainly the city of Atlanta, Fulton County, and they got their employees out in a timely fashion. It did get quite hectic on the roadway. But I believe that the elected officials did the right thing by getting -- releasing these people to get out of harm's way as soon as possible.

COSTELLO: I'm hearing what you're saying, Matthew, and I'm just expressing the frustration of a city. As a person who was stuck in traffic for hours and hours and hours. What people are wondering, OK, the snow started to fall at 1:00 yesterday afternoon. Everybody was looking for a salt truck or a plow. I just asked nine people out here, nobody saw one. When did you begin salting the roads?

KALLMYER: Well, I can tell you for a fact that the city of Atlanta actually got out early in the morning to start addressing the problem spots. One of the things that, you know, I know the commissioner is quite happy from public works is that we had not a single problem by any of our major hospitals. Both of our trauma facilities have told us they have had no problems with access to their facility.

COSTELLO: Yes, but, Matthew, that's by the grace - that's by the grace of God. You had over 1,000 traffic accidents. A woman had a baby inside of her car. There are school children still trapped on school buses on the highway right now, 18 hours after it started snowing. A lot of people would say that's unconscionable.

KALLMYER: Great point, Carol, but that's - you know, I want to make sure that we know what our private partners have done to come forward and help these individuals. And Publix, Kroger, Home Depot and various (INAUDIBLE) organizations have come forward and done some incredible things to make sure that these people had a place where they could go and get out of, I guess, the cold weather for a little while, (INAUDIBLE), and we're really grateful to them.

COSTELLO: Yes, but isn't that the responsibility of our public officials? Is it the responsibility of Home Depot to like spring up and provide emergency shelter for people who simply cannot get home? For people who had to abandon their cars on roadways and walk to some place warm?

KALLMYER: Well, it takes - it takes every partner to go ahead and make this successful. And point - once again, there are a lot of resources out there that are being brought to bear to handle this, but there really is only a limited number of spreaders, graters, everything that can be brought to bear. And they're being used. I can assure you that between the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and the Georgia Department of Transportation, they're trying to take care of every route that they can. Major thoroughfares. We supported them by bringing police assets (ph) to help protect them during that process. And, once again, just within the city of Atlanta, Sandy Springs, Roswell, Alpharetta, Johns Creek, Fairburn, Union City, tremendous work for those public safety partners getting out there to do what they can.

KATE BOLDUAN, ANCHOR, CNN "NEW DAY": So, Matthew, let me just -

COSTELLO: And I'm sure you're working around the clock. I just want to ask one more question, Kate, if I might. In hindsight, and I know it's not your responsibility to shut down Atlanta Schools or schools throughout the area, but should schools have been closed before the weather started or even the night before?

KALLMYER: Carol, that's always a question to hard-view answer after the event happens. You know, we will work with the National Weather Service to make sure that the - our partners in both the Atlanta Public Schools and Fulton County Public Schools get the best information in a timely fashion so that they can ask their administration to make those informed decisions. You know, we will continue to work with them to fine-tune this so that they could be successful as we move ahead.


COSTELLO: All right. So there you heard it.

These are live pictures. This is - this is actually -- this is tape. But just a short time ago, this is I-75 in Cobb County, that's outside of Atlanta. As you can see, there are cars still on the roadway right now. And the reason for that is a lot of people simply abandoned their cars and either got in a car with another person who still had gas or walked somewhere for warmth. There was also a number of traffic accidents. Since emergency crews could not get to those accidents where there were no injuries, people simply abandoned their cars on the highway.

I mean this is what it looks like right now. People are still trapped in their cars as we speak. One of the persons -- one woman who suffered through a similar nightmare is Hilary Eiseman. She joins me now on the phone. Oh, you're on Skype.

Hi there, Hilary.


COSTELLO: I'm much better than you, but I'm so glad that you're home right now. How many hours did it take you to get home?

EISEMAN: It took over 12 hours. And, actually, my car overheated. So a stranger, a nice Samaritan, his name is Peter, I don't have his last name, he actually took me the rest of the way. We were in the car 10 hours.

COSTELLO: Oh. So you're - now, let me get this straight, you were in your car for 12 hours, and then another 10 hours in his car?

EISEMAN: No, I was in my car for two hours. My car overheated. And he was kind enough to take me the rest of the way. Were we driving together. I never met him before in my life and we, together, made it through really some very treacherous times. I don't know how I even made it there. We made it to a racetrack, a gas station, a then a police officer took me the rest of the way home.

COSTELLO: And this was particularly scary for you because you have diabetes?

EISEMAN: That's correct. Yes. And, you know, you don't realize how lucky you are until you're in a situation where you're trapped on a highway and you, you know, have -- nature calls, you know, basically, and you're with a stranger who's so kind. I really lucked out being with somebody who was very patient and kind and we kept each other company because we didn't know if we had to abandon our car or not. You know, we're pretty much there.

COSTELLO: Tell me about your emotional journey through that 12 hours.

EISEMAN: Well, initially, I just thought, you know, that it was going to take maybe two hours to get home. Until I was really stuck in it and my car just started overheating, so I pulled over. And I thought I'd wait it out for a little bit and everything would be fine.

With the kindness of strangers, you know, he actually calmed me down quite a bit. And it was pretty amazing because this is a really scary situation. I didn't know even until midnight last night if I was going to get home at all. And I'm so thankful. I don't even know how I got here, to be honest with you. It's just amazing how we made it. We got stuck four or five times on the highway and our cars - our car wouldn't go and then all of a sudden it would just turn back in where it needed to be.

COSTELLO: Oh. In all of that time, did you see any salt trucks?

EISEMAN: I didn't see anything. I didn't see any salt trucks. There were some police cars because of some accidents. But, really, people were just stuck. And kind of feeling at a loss. All I saw was abandoned cars along the highway and a million accidents. And we were just so thankful that we were healthy and we had one another to kind of just talk our way out of being really panicked.

COSTELLO: We're looking at live pictures of the highway right now. And it probably looks exactly the same as it did when you were stuck there for those 12 hours.

EISEMAN: Absolutely. Absolutely. We didn't - and we had to make big decisions, do we try to get off the highway, you know, at what the exit. And what do we do if we, you know, get to a certain point. What do we do if we get in a car accident? What do we do if somebody gets injured? One of us. We had to talk through a lot of very big life decisions with two strangers. So it's pretty amazing, actually.

COSTELLO: You know, and to make matters worse - I mean, people in the north are probably looking at this, Hilary, and saying, oh, my gosh, it's like two inches of snow, barely. But it was also frigidly cold. The roads were not salted or cleared. So explain to people why this was such a big deal for the city of Atlanta and for cities in the south that are going to experience this today?

EISEMAN: Well, I have to say, I lived in Philadelphia for eight years. So I've experienced extreme temperatures and extreme weather. And here in Atlanta, we don't get soft, powdery snow. We get ice. And what happened was, it was compacting with all the traffic and the jams and it was not heating up the roads. It was making it black ice, which was so dangerous.

I had to step out of the car twice. And each time it was slick. It was an ice skating rink for a car. And it's very dangerous. It's very danger than a soft snow and -- and we don't have the kinds of roads and conditions that can handle that, nor do we have the drivers. I mean we have people who are not familiar with how to drive in that. And even those who are familiar, I'm telling you, there was no way to navigate this safely. I don't even know how I made it home safely and we made it anywhere. It was that scary.

COSTELLO: OK, so, last question - last question for you, Hilary, who do you hold accountable for this?

EISEMAN: Oh, gosh, that's a good question. You know, I think, no pun intended, but it was the perfect storm. I think that, you know, we should have never had had the kids go to school today at all. And I think part of the clamoring with the traffic jam was parents trying to get to their children. And I do think that - I didn't see any salt trucks. I didn't see DOT. And I just think it was a matter of so many things that happened in such symmetry that made for just a nightmare. COSTELLO: Well, Hilary Eiseman, I am glad you're home safe and sound. Thank you so much for sharing your story this morning. And, by the way, you'll want to continue watching because Mayor Kasim Reed just entered the studio. I'll talk to Atlanta's mayor after the break.


COSTELLO: Streets from Alabama to the Carolinas looks like skating rinks. Driving on these roads looks quite dangerous. The Atlanta metro area had more than three inches of snow in some places and that may not seem like much but it's enough to grind the city to a halt. People stuck in traffic for more than eight hours in some cases. Some people had to abandon their cars on the roadway and walk home. Others slept in stores like Home Depot. Hundreds of teachers and students slept in schools. Some kids were even stuck on school buses until late Tuesday night.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was super scared. I was like if I don't get home tonight to my parents I'm going to freak out. Let my mom know where I am and my dad. It was crazy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was scared I wouldn't see my mom until like 7:00 a.m.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are so happy and we're so grateful to the bus driver. We're happy they're home.


COSTELLO: Joining me now is Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Thanks for coming in, Mr. Mayor, I appreciate it.

KASIM REED (D), MAYOR OF ATLANTA: I'm glad to be with you.

COSTELLO: You know how angry people are at you?

REED: Well I don't feel that people are angry at me. I think that they have great -- a great deal of frustration.

COSTELLO: You don't think people are angry at you?

REED: Now. Well this is the deal, Carol, what I've been doing is working nonstop to alleviate a very tough situation. And we got one million people in the city of Atlanta out of the city. We haven't had any fatalities in the city of Atlanta. We got all of the children who are in the school buses in the ATS system off of those buses. And I've been communicating with the people of the city on a clustered basis. The last time I talked to them --


COSTELLO: But there are plenty of people -- there are plenty of people who say those school children should have never been placed in that position; that schools should have been closed before the weather hit.

REED: Well Carol, yes let me say this, if you're being fair, you would point out that the Atlanta public school systems makes the call when the system is closed.

COSTELLO: But don't you collaborate? Isn't it a collaborative --

REED: Listen, no, no, no you ought to be fair with the interview. The Atlanta Public School Systems calls and the school systems independently call when they close. So what we did was communicate. And yesterday, immediately, I said that I thought that it was a mistake for business, government and the schools to announce those closures which caused people to flow into the streets and created a major traffic jam. I went on the local news --


COSTELLO: So just overruled your suggestions?

REED: This wasn't an overruling. The bottom line is I said that if I would have had my druthers we would have staggered the closings. But you know for you to represent or make it seem as if I control when the school systems close or businesses that's totally not the case.

COSTELLO: So who is to blame?

REED: I think that that was a mistake and they shared responsibility for it.

COSTELLO: Who would make that decision? Who made the decision to allow schools to let out, businesses to let out and government offices to let out at the same time?

REED: The same way -- the same way that CNN released their employees, other businesses released their employees. So there were a series of independent decisions when they saw that the government was closed and that APS was closing, thousands of businesses decided to release their employees. During the day, there are 1.1 million people in the city. And all of those people left at about the same time which caused a massive traffic jam that caused a great difficulty.

That being said -- that being said, we got a million people out of the city. We did not have any fatalities. We cleared the way of all of our hospitals, all of our police stations and all of our fire stations.

COSTELLO: -- we didn't have any fatalities, but that was just by the grace of God.


REED: No hold it's not just by the grace of God.

COSTELLO: People got out of their cars on icy roadways on freezing conditions.

REED: It's easy for you to say from your anchor seat --

COSTELLO: No I was stuck in the traffic, I was one of those people.

REED: Well if you put up CNN cameras it looks pretty good outside of CNN. And it's not just by the grace of God, it's through a lot of people working Carol. I think it's by the grace of God and thousands of employees who did not go to sleep last night who are working very hard all night long.

So I certainly have said immediately yesterday that releasing all of these folks was not the right way to go. And the only thing I've been doing is working constantly. And I agree that God definitely had a role in it. But God needs partners and that's people who are out here doing their work.

But we're in the first day of the storm and we're we are working right now to clear the freeways and you know that I don't have responsibilities for the freeways. But I'm partnering with our state partners to get people off of the freeways.

COSTELLO: Ok let's talk about the streets within the city of Atlanta. Because I drove to work this morning and some of them are quite icy and frankly dangerous. I have talked to many, many people who say they haven't seen a salt truck anywhere. Where are they?

REED: Well obviously, there are salt trucks. The salt, the streets are salted and done on my route here. So I drove on the same roads that you got rode on and I got here in 20 minutes. And I know that we had a fleet of 30 spreaders, we have 40 snowplows and our crews have been running nonstop on 12-hour shifts.

So of course, there are going to be roads that are icy. that's going to happen but what I know is that we are responding in our ahead of the storm. And you and I -- you were here in 2011.

COSTELLO: Yes, I was.

REED: The city was closed two and three days really before they was any activity. So we started -- we started --

COSTELLO: Well let's talk about that, let's talk about because I was going to say -- I was going to say other cities -- I was going to say other cities have these kinds problems.

REED: We have started immediately. So we started immediately. The bottom line is we're going to work nonstop and we're going to get the city open and operational faster. We're going to partner with the state and we're going to get folks off of the freeways and we're going to keep people safe.

COSTELLO: Well I was going to say other cities seem to have it together when things happen like this. And you could -- you could argue that cities like Atlanta aren't used to dealing with weather like this but it just happened a couple of years ago. So you had a practice run. And some citizens might say, you learned nothing from that, because it was worse this time. REED: No and I would say to those citizens that they should go back and look at your CNN tape. That's just not true during the last storm, it took days, the city didn't even have any snow equipment during the last storm. It took days. For the first two days, it was kind of unfunny like snow days. We were responding immediately. We started de-icing the city before the snow ever fell and we are now in day one of this crisis. And we are fully staffed and running full 12- shifts. So as tough it is right now it is nowhere near as bad as it was in 2011 where the snow event lasted three or four days. And really candidly nothing was done. Because nobody had any equipment. This time, we had 30 spreaders, we had 40 snowplows, we had 70,000 tons of sand and gravel, we had it located within the city. And what we're going to do is continue to work and get the city open and operational. And we're going to go out and partner with the state and get folks off the freeways.

COSTELLO: So if this happens a month from now and I hope it doesn't, same scenario what would you do differently?

REED: What we would differently is definitely stagger all of the closings, coordinate more with the business community, the local school system and the state on our closings so that we didn't have -- we don't have the massive -- massive exodus that we had on this occasion that led to a horrible traffic situation that caused people enormous inconvenience.

COSTELLO: Mayor Kasim Reed, thank you so much for coming in I know you a press conference to hold in just about 10 minutes so I'll let you go. Thank you so much.

REED: Yes thank you Carol. Thank you for giving me a chance to talk to you.

COSTELLO: You're welcome.

We'll be right back.


COSTELLO: All right we've been talking about the city of Atlanta and how it came to a standstill because of two inches of snow that fell yesterday afternoon. And because of a bunch of factors -- in many places, the city and suburbia still at a standstill.

We're joined now by Jeannie Collin she's a teacher at Barbara Middle School rather, Barbara Middle School, she's been stranded in that school since yesterday morning. When she got to work You tell us, Jeannie. Yesterday morning, you went to work as usual. Were you surprised that school was being held and wasn't canceled?

JEANNIE COLLIN, SCHOOL TEACHER: I have to say I was a little surprised but, there again, at that point, when we were watching the weather and keeping an eye on things, we just didn't expect for there to be as much accumulation and as much ice as what we ended up getting. Once it started coming down, it started coming down very, very quickly and iced very quickly. COSTELLO: So when was the decision made to try to send the kids home?

COLLIN: Oh, gosh, I want to say that maybe around 10:30, we got the news that we would be closing early. We were going to have a two-hour early relief schedule. All of the level schools, whatever time they normally released, we were going to be releasing two hours early. For us, that would have been at 2:50.

COSTELLO: And then were the buses still running to take the kids home.

COLLIN: We did have buses running. But, of course, they have to go to the elementary schools first and then the high schools and middle schools which was one of the reasons for the staggered release system.

We did have many buses that were unable to maneuver the roads and maneuver traffic. There were a lot of abandoned vehicles and so just getting to and from students homes and the schools, it was messy.

COSTELLO: so some students, because the buses couldn't like be on the roads because it was too dangerous, some students were trapped with you yesterday. At some point yesterday, how many students could not get home to their parents?

COLLILN: Well, we still have one with us this morning. Her mother is one of those ones that are trapped on 75 in her car right now frantically trying to get to her child. We released four others at 11:30 last night.

COSTELLO: I've been talking to several mothers here at CNN. They had the very same problem. They could not get to their children. I can't imagine the phone calls you were getting through the night.

COLLIN: we got many phone calls. But I have to say that the outpouring of support and love and outreach from our community and our families, our parents has just been tremendous. We are extremely blessed to be where we are. I think that our community knows that their children were in good hands here at Barbara. We pride ourselves on putting our students first and making sure that they are well cared for. We fed them dinner. We had snacks. We played games. So we tried to make the most of a situation as we could. But, yes, it was a little stressful at times.

COSTELLO: You know, I just interviewed the mayor. Who do you hold accountable for this mess?

COLLIN: Oh, I don't think I'm going to bite on that one. Like I said our focus is our students and our community. I'm not here to point fingers or to place blame on anyone. I'm just relieved to know that our students are safe and that we are warm and taken care of.

COSTELLO: You're a nice, nice woman, Jeannie Collin. Thank you so much for joining me this morning. I appreciate it.

COLLIN: Thank you Carol.