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Snow, Ice Paralyze Atlanta; Mayor: We Are Providing Food

Aired January 29, 2014 - 10:30   ET


KASIM REED, MAYOR OF ATLANTA: We are also providing food for them. So we have been providing food for the students who are stranded in school at this time are on buses. We -- we are also providing food for them. So we have been providing food for the students who are stranded in school at this time.

The joint operations center has been operating since 11:00 a.m. on yesterday. All of us have been working 12-hour shifts. Mine has been nonstop. Our fire station has provided overnight support --

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: All right, we're going to step away from this news conference, because I think we get the gist.

Let's go back to Victor Blackwell right now with the numbers. And the Mayor just -- just said 791 accidents in all in the city of Atlanta. Most of them have been cleared. He still has open cases as he termed but for 28 accidents. What are you hearing?

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well again, just for those people who joined us late, 1,254 crash calls for Georgia State Police, 130 injuries and now one confirmed fatality. Now, you heard Mayor Kasim Reed say that there is not one fatality in the city of Atlanta. And these two things of course can be true, because these are the numbers for the state. It could be outside the city of Atlanta.

One other thing that the mayor mentioned of getting food to students at schools; I had a conversation a short time ago with the spokesperson for Atlanta Public Schools about the food and the supplies getting to students. And I read some tweets from the APS accounts at 11:54 last night about students who were waiting for food who are hungry. And they said, food is on the way. I asked her, when did the food reach these students? When were supplies sent to these nine sites where hundreds of students were waiting? She just repeated, "Everyone has received food."

So no clarity on if it was 2:00 a.m., 3:00 a.m., or 5:00 a.m. this morning but they are now saying that there have been resources sent to all these schools.

And for parents, if you read the Facebook and the -- the social media responses, that is not enough. We are still hearing the outcry from the parents who one wondering why the students were welcomed to schools on a day when their officials knew its going to be an inclement -- the weather was going to be difficult.

Also, why they put all the school buses on the roads at 1:25 and then the communication with the students, between the students and their parents, so we're still waiting to get some clarity about the resources that were provided to the students and when they actually received them -- Carol.

COSTELLO: I'm sure you'll be looking for those answers today. Victor Blackwell, many thanks to you.


COSTELLO: We are joined now by Keith Parker, he's the CEO and general manager of Marta, that's the public transit system in Atlanta. Good morning, sir.


COSTELLO: So I'm hoping the trains are running.

PARKER: They are. The trains are actually running on a somewhat delayed schedule but we kept the training up and running all night actually. We resumed regular service around 5:30 this morning. Yesterday, we carried several hundred thousand people and I think operated pretty well.

COSTELLO: In your mind -- because we're trying to get at what exactly happened -- only two inches of snow fell in the city of Atlanta. And granted, it's very cold. But -- but this is -- this is ridiculous. This is a large metropolitan city who's been through this situation before. We heard from the governor who said it was because of a faulty weather forecast. We just heard from the mayor from the city of Atlanta saying, hey, I'm not responsible for the highways. I'm only responsible for the streets within the city of Atlanta.

In your mind, sir, who is to blame for this mess?

PARKER: Well, I won't get into who is to blame in various ways. But what I can tell you about the Marta's route is that we prepared quite a bit in advance for situations like this. We do a tremendous amount of emergency preparedness. We had our emergency operations center going as of yesterday and were able to successfully move faithfully moved hundreds of thousands of people during yesterday afternoon and beginning those various people again this morning as well. We were beginning to run the rail service throughout the day. Hello.

COSTELLO: I'm just looking at these pictures I'm sorry and hoping that everyone is taking the train. And you say that the trains are full which is a good thing. Was there collaboration between state officials and city officials and Marta, you guys? Was there enough collaboration to prepare for this storm?

PARKER: Well again, I speak for our folks. And we did communicate with the state, with city officials. We had communications and yes, we do cost them quite a bit. The -- I think the toughest thing about this storm has simply been the ice. The snow is not a problem. I have had a chance to work in a number of different cities around the country that have had occasion to deal with these types of emergency situations. And the biggest difference between two inches of snow in Wisconsin and what we had here is that this is ice. There's an instant ice on the roads.

And that's a far different scene than we saw the same type of situation when I was working in Charlotte and Richmond, Virginia and some other places. And thankfully in all of those the Marta transit system was able to come through and deliver people home safely like we did yesterday and will continue to do for the rest of this morning and throughout the -- throughout this event.

COSTELLO: Keith Parker, general manager of Marta. The public transit system here in Atlanta. Thank you so much for -- thank you so much for joining me. We're going to hear from the -- we're going to hear from the Mayor now or after a break.

OK we're going to hear from the Mayor after a break. We'll be right back.


COSTELLO: And we're following breaking news out of Atlanta this morning where roads are paralyzed. Just a few minutes ago, I talked with the Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and asked him, how is it possible that people are still stuck in traffic from yesterday, from last night? Some people are still trying to get home this morning. They have been trapped in their cars for 12-15 hours.

Well the mayor defended himself, saying he is not to blame for those horrible traffic problems. Listen.


COSTELLO: So who is to blame?

KASIM REED, MAYOR OF ATLANTA: I think that that was a mistake and they shared responsibility for it.

COSTELLO: Who made 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: Well the same, the same way that CNN released their employees, other businesses released their employees. So they were a series of independent decisions when they saw that the government was closing. And that APS were 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 have not had any fatalities. We have cleared the way of all of our hospitals all of our police stations, and all about fire stations.

COSTELLO: But I've heard this from public officials before. We didn't have any public fatalities. But that was just by the grace of God. There were 1,000 traffic accidents and people got out of their cars on icy road ways in freezing conditions. (CROSSTALK)

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

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

REED: Well if you put up the CNN cameras, it looks pretty good outside of CNN and it is not just by the grace of God. It was through a lot of people working, Carol. I think it is by the grace of God and thousands of employees who did not go to sleep last night who were 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 have 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 the work.

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

COSTELLO: OK well, let's talk about the streets within the city of Atlanta. Because I drove to work this morning and some of them were 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, because the streets are salted and then 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're responding in hour one ahead of the storm. And you and I -- you were here during 2011.

COSTELLO: Yes I was.

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

COSTELLO: Well let's talk about that. Let's talk about that because I was going to say -- I was going to say other cities -- handle these kind of problems.

REED: We started immediately. So you know we started immediately. And the bottom line is, we're going to work nonstop and we're going to get the city open and operational faster. We are going to partner with the state and we're going to get the 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 funny, like snow days. We were responding immediately. With he started deicing 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-hour shifts.

So as tough as 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, 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 do 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 exodus that we had on this occasion that led to a horrible traffic situation that caused people enormous inconvenience.


COSTELLO: All right. That was Atlanta's mayor, Kasim Reed. And some citizens of Atlanta are probably shaking their heads because he probably didn't give them the answers that they really wanted to hear.

One of them just might be my colleague, Kyra Phillips, who has quite the horror story to tell. Kyra are you with me.

KYRA PHILLIPS, HLN HOST: And Carol, I am sitting here burning up, taking notes from what he said. It is like what I heard at the press conference at 11:00 last night when I finally made myself -- or got myself home after an eight-hour commute, ditching my car and walking in the snow and ice, falling three times, to get home to my twins.

Here is what just drives me nuts. He is talking about what he is doing now but he did not address what they did not do prior to this. They knew this was coming. This was a combination of bad forecasting and no planning. When they held that press conference last night, one of the emergency response individuals got up there and said, you know, we understand your pain. It took us about an hour and a half to get here as well. An hour and a half. You know what -- say that to the woman at the CVS (inaudible) who was eight months pregnant and couldn't leave and is still there this morning. Say that to the woman who gave birth on the freeway because she couldn't make it to the hospital. Even say it to me and colleagues who couldn't make it home last night for up to ten hours.

It is ridiculous. And how about the kids that were in the school buses that I saw as I was walking home in the middle of the night freezing my bum off.

I mean, I can't believe the way he is talking. They screwed up, Carol. And they need to own it and they need to realize what they -- or they need to implement something differently.

He mentioned 2011. Yes. People had warning in 2011. I was a part of that. I remember. People stayed home. That's why it wasn't as bad as this time. People weren't told to stay home soon enough. Schools should have been canceled and we shouldn't have been in the predicament that we were yesterday.

COSTELLO: Well here is what the mayor said about that -- Kyra. He said, "Hey, I'm not in charge of closing down schools. That would be the school superintendent, right. I'm not in charge have o the highways. I'm only in charge of the roadways within the city of Atlanta."

You know, the reason the city came to a stand still is because the schools were closed, businesses closed and government offices closed all at the same time. Everybody was leaving at the same time, which caused huge traffic jams, which meant even if the salt trucks were present, and I personally didn't see any, they couldn't get through the traffic to spread the salt on the roadways.

Now the mayor did admit there could have been better collaboration between public officials. It seems to me right at the moment there was none.

PHILLIPS: Well, let's talk about 9/11 and how nobody was communicating. Did we not learn anything from 9/11? When public officials were not communicating with each other?

And you know what -- I'm sorry, Mr. Mayor. You are in charge of this city and the safety of this city. You knew what was coming as our good friend, Lt. Honore, Russell Honore said, who led us through Katrina. Sometimes you just got to break the rules and not put up with the bureaucracy. Call the shots as a leader, be a man and take charge. Don't blame it on other people.

He should have coordinated with all those leaders, whether it was the school superintendent or whomever. Hey, emergency -- let's all communication. Let's make a decision. I'm the mayor. I think we should do this. Take charge, point blank.

They screwed up, Carol. I've never seen anything like this before as in all of this, dozens and dozens of people that I talked to on that trek home. People were desperate. I have never seen people this desperate in our city and I have never seen them stranded this long.

There are still people all across this city in schools, drug stores, grocery stores. They look like homeless people spread out on the floor. I have been sending in pictures all through the night and the morning. People still can't get home. That's ridiculous.

COSTELLO: You are absolutely right. One of our colleagues, Matt Holcomb, from the engineering department, he left work at 4:45 yesterday afternoon. He just arrived home now.

Let's talk about that picture we just showed before we get into Matt's story. I think this is in a Home Depot -- right -- because people were leaving their cars and trying to find any place warm. They went into Home Depot and CVS. It is just insane.

PHILLIPS: And grocery stores. Here is another scene that really bothers me about what the mayor said. Well, Carol, the route I took to get here was salted and I had no problem. I made it in 20 minutes. Yes, you are the mayor and guess what, you have an entourage and my guess is, they wanted to make sure he got to the interview on CNN so there was some -- I'm not saying what went down but my guess is they made sure the mayor was going to get to your interview safe and sound and within 20 minutes.

You know, Say that to the person still stranded out on 400 out in the boondocks still trying to get home to their family. Their route wasn't salted. On your note of not seeing salt trucks, eight hour commute all over the main parts of this city, I didn't see one salt truck.

COSTELLO: I didn't either.

Kyra Phillips thanks for sharing the outrage in your story. Thanks so much. And I'm glad you are home with your twins. I'm sure they are happy too.

We are going to talk to a woman who actually had to sleep all night in a Home Depot. We will also check back in with my colleague, Matt Holcomb, who finally made it home.

We'll be right back.


COSTELLO: We've been talking mostly this morning about what's happening in the city of Atlanta and the outlying suburbs. I'm telling you the area has come to an absolute halt after just two inches of snow fell. People trapped in their cars for up to 12 hours.

In fact, some people are still trapped in their cars on I-75, on I-85, Interstate 285. They just can't go anywhere, because a lot of people abandoned their cars. And there were accidents and emergency crews couldn't get to those accidents to clear the cars from the roadways. And that caused so many problems.

In the end, some people actually got out of their cars and walked to anywhere close by where it was warm. Brittany Luiz actually spent the night at a Home Depot. I'm anxious to hear your story, Brittany. Are you there.

BRITTANY LUIZ, STRANDED (via telephone): Hey, there. Yes, you guys talking about desperation. I can tell you spending 10 hours in my car, moving about a few feet every 30 minutes, not knowing how far I was going to be able to go. My phone died about two hours into my commute. So my family didn't know where I was, if I was OK. It was awful.

But I was able to find some Wi-Fi and get my laptop and call my husband. He saw on Facebook that Home Depot was offering people shelter and food. So luckily, I was just next door. I got in. They are amazing. They gave us food. They gave us blankets. They gave us pillows. They put down rugs. People were sleeping everywhere. They had movies showing. We could watch the news. It was -- they were really amazing.

COSTELLO: Did you ever think you would be spending the night in a Home Depot?

LUIZ: No, no. One of the girls next to me said that it was kind of like a weird Girl Scout walk-in. Like you just have people kind of walking around and everyone looks dazed. It's been quite the experience.

COSTELLO: Interestingly, "The Walking Dead" is filmed in part in Atlanta. A lot of people said it looked like the zombie apocalypse on the highway.

LUIZ: I'll tell you what, one of my friends told me that she was so impressed with I was able to find food and shelter, that if the zombie apocalypse happened, she wanted me on her team.

COSTELLO: Who do you hold accountable for what happened in Atlanta?

LUIZ: You know, that's a hard question but I definitely feel like it is the government's job to make sure that their citizens are safe. And I was sitting in my car last night and I looked over and there was a bus full of kids. There were people who were getting out of their cars. There were abandoned cars in the middle of the road. It was pretty crazy and I definitely think that somebody should be held accountable for that.

COSTELLO: I just talked to the mayor of Atlanta and he said he is not responsible for maintaining the highways, right. He is just responsible for inside the city of Atlanta. The governor earlier said there was a faulty forecast to blame. Actually, we have invited the governor to be on the program and he has declined.

So when you hear things like that, Brittany, what goes through your mind about your public officials?

LUIZ: I mean, really it just makes me worry if this happened again. You had said earlier, what would happen if this came up again in a month. You know, I don't know if it would be any different and that worries me.

COSTELLO: You're not alone. Brittany Luiz, thank you so much for joining us this morning. I so appreciate it.

LUIZ: Thank you.

COSTELLO: All right. We're going to bring in Matthew Holcomb right now. He's the vice president of engineering here at the CNN Center in Atlanta. He was stuck on the highway for 18 hours. He left work at 4:45 yesterday afternoon and he just got home. Matthew -- congratulations.

MATTHEW HOLCOMB, CNN VP OF ENGINEERING: I've never been so happy to see my home in my life, Carol. It is great to be here.

COSTELLO: I can't believe you didn't run out of gas.

HOLCOMB: Well, you know, I actually had to conserve it. I was sitting on 285 there at 75 for about 12 hours not moving last night. And it would get cold. You just had to crank the car up, get it warm and then cut it off. When I left work, I had about half a tank. But when I came into the house this morning, I was running on fumes. So I mean I had to conserve gas. There was no doubt about it. You couldn't get off the freeway. You were just blocked.

COSTELLO: There were plenty of other people on the highway with you. At some point, did you start to get to know them?

HOLCOMB: Actually, there were a couple of people I talked to. One was a guy that was actually handing out Gatorade and things like that. The motorist had a full backpack. He was just kind of walking down the middle of 285 which was a pretty surreal scene.

And he was --

COSTELLO: Hey Matthew --


COSTELLO: I am going to interrupt you for just a second because there is an interview from the National Guard. We want to just dip in to see what's going on. Hold on for a second. Let's go there.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I-75, between 285 south all the way up to I-20. So right through there, that's what we have been running up and down for the night trying to find stranded motorists to help them out any way we can. Let them know what's available.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is this you are holding here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, you know, for the ones that need it, we have meals ready to eat, what we call MREs. And these are just, you know -- it's got stuff in there just basic nutrition. That's what your soldiers are eating out in Afghanistan when they're out on patrol and everything else.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So they just can open it and start eating it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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 some water or we can give them some water, they can actually heat up a section of it with a heater that's activated by water here. So, you know, we do that as well.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. And you guys are going to be out here all day?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We'll have to rotate out with the Georgia Guard and the 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.