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Snow Disaster in Atlanta; Nathan Deal Press Conference.

Aired January 29, 2014 - 11:30   ET




UNIDENTIFIED CORRESPONDENT: We are in the northbound lane of I-25. You can see if you look at these two big rigs, they have had a little accident here. There is a car right next to them that actually hit one of the big rigs as well. There is nothing but ice on the interstate. A lady has her hood up over there. She told me her battery died. She needs a jump. Several truckers say they are concerned they may soon run out of gas. Even when traffic starts to move, some of these trucks and cars may not be able to. This lady's battery has died and some are starting to run out of gas. People are getting out of cars and starting to walk around.


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: That is the reality of deep freeze 2014. Atlanta has been a disaster. There are still people stuck on the freeways, some of them for over 18 hours in their cars. They are cars that have run out of gas, trucks that are jackknifed and the story looks a lot like that. That is not good. That can be prevented. Who is taking the blame for all of this? So far, no one.

We are awaiting a news conference that could start any moment from the governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal. He is expected to take the m microphone live. The Atlanta mayor, Kasim Reed, who did the interview you just witnessed, effectively saying this was a series of independent decisions. This was not his problem. You tell that to the people not able to watch the live news conference because they are sitting like that, stuck and unable to go anywhere.

I want to bring in my colleague, Carol Costello. I also want to bring in Lieutenant General, Russel Honore, we know so well as being ably in control of the post-Hurricane Katrina aftermath.

Hats off for you for not going apoplectic --


-- on the mayor during your interview. I was jumping out of my seat as he said he had no problem getting into the interview. There were still people trapped and we only heard the last of children stuck on buses reunited with their families. Tell me more about his demeanor off air. CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think what he was saying when he answered my question in that way was that the freeways are outside of his jurisdiction. They are in the county, in suburbia. He is only responsible for the streets of Atlanta. No one is stuck on the streets of Atlanta, at least this morning. Now, last night, it was a whole different story. I live two miles from CNN and it took me two hours to get home, two hours. I was afraid I was going to run out of gas. I was going one mile per hour to get home. Two miles. It was crazy.

The other thing is you heard him say it was a series of independent decisions. They finally decided to call in the National Guard but they didn't do that until late today. Why didn't they call out the National Guard from the get-go?

I keep wondering why things weren't salted. There were other cities that had salted well in advance of any kind of impending ice storm. I want to read quickly. The mayor claimed they began pre-treating streets at 9:00 a.m., city crews, 30 spreaders and 40 snow falls have finished treating priority one areas, such as bridges and exit and their current focus was helping state crews clear the freeways.

Let me just throw this to General Honore.

You know full well how this works, how you can prevent crisis and then how you have to deal with it when you, perhaps, don't prevent it well enough. Your assessment of how the city of Atlanta tried to prevent this? Did they fail? Is the mayor responsible in deflecting the blame?

LT. GEN. RUSSEL HONORE, U.S. ARMY GENERAL RETIRED & CNN ANALYST: There is a failure of leadership in Atlanta and Georgia, in particular. They have a decentralized government. The city of Atlanta touches many different counties and the smaller cities around unlike New York where you have one mayor that speaks for eight million people. In Atlanta --

BANFIELD: General Honore, I am going to interrupt. The governor is speaking right now.

NATHAN DEAL, (D), GOVERNOR OF GEORGIA: -- what has occurred since we met last evening to talk about the effects of the snowstorm and the effects on people in our city, Atlanta, and our state as a whole.

As I told you last night, we were focusing primarily at that point in time in dealing with schoolchildren, because there were a large number of children that we either on school buses or in their schools. We have seen significant progress in that regard. I want to say at this point a thank you to the teachers, to the staff, to the resource officers for those schools, the administrators. Many of them were there all night and made sure that if the children were staying in their school, they were safe. They have been aided by the state patrol. We sent state patrol officers to all of the schools where children were being kept. They have worked with the local resource officers of those schools because we were concerned of their safety and of their well-being. I think everyone can report to you as you talk to those schools individually there has been tremendous cooperation from the state level, city level and from the school and district level. That has been our priority.

Let me tell you how far we have come in that regard. There were several school systems that were affected, some more dramatically than others. Last night at midnight, Fulton County schools had 99 school buses with children on the roads. By 1:30 this morning, it was down to 45 buses and by this morning, there are zero buses on the roads for the Fulton County school system with children on them. Yesterday at 6:00 p.m., Fulton County had six children on buses or in their schools. By 9:00 p.m., it was down to 5,000 children that were either on buses or in schools. This morning, there are no children on buses and about 2000 of the Fulton County school systems that are still in their schools. Now, what has occurred to be able to make that dramatic reduction, is that they have been prioritized in terms of public safety personnel, primarily our state troopers and our National Guard. Now, those children that are in those schools who we are hoping will be transported as soon as possible back to their homes.

We are having the National Guard and state troopers working. The National Guard will provide lead vehicles as the school buses make their routes to return those children back to their homes. In the Atlanta Public School System, last evening, they had about 1500 children that were either with them or on buses. By 9:00 p.m., it was down to 1,000. This morning, there are only about 400. Here again, state troopers and National Guard. Will be escorting those children back to their homes or escorting the buses as they attempt to return the children back to their homes.

The Marietta School System had about 1400 children. This morning, they are down to about 480 students. Here again, local police are providing the escorts for buses to return those children this morning back to their homes. We have also had state troopers at their schools in the Marietta School System. They had children stay overnight in some 23 different schools and this morning, they were down to 220 children and they too are having the services of escort provided so those children can be returned home. Cobb county as of 9:00 last night, had anywhere between 1500 and 2000 students. Some 320 spent the night overnight in their schools. Once again, the National Guard and state troopers are providing escort so that those children can be returned back to their homes. They did not have any children stranded overnight. All children had been returned home and accounted for in Gwyneth (ph) as well as the Decatur School System. DeKalb faired very well, only about six students sheltered in the police precinct, because of the urgency of the situation for those six children. Cherokee County had 415 children that spend overnight in their system. They only have about 50 children remaining as of this morning. We have been in contact with the offices of the school superintendents of each system I have just enumerated.

Now, in addition to thanking the teachers and the staff and the National Guard and the state troopers who had been working to make those children a priority, I want to simply say, thank you to the citizens of our community here in the Atlanta area particularly. It has happened not only here but in other parts of the state where this storm has adversely affected normal transportation. Neighbors are helping neighbors and strangers, people they don't know. Folks that have become stranded, they are offering help. That is typical of what Georgians do to help people that find themselves in difficult situations.

Now, the agencies that have been working together cooperatively with the mayor's office and with the city of Atlanta personnel are numerous. I want to call on several of them to come and briefly tell you what they have been doing and the success that they have had up to this point.

First of all, let me start with the Department of Transportation, commissioner, Keith Golden.

If you would come up and give us an overview of what your folks have been doing.

KEITH GOLDEN, COMMISSIONER, DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION: Thank you, Governor. Just an update from we've been doing since last evening. We have continued to work on our roadways. This has been a statewide effort for the Department of Transportation. We have had crews working throughout the entire state. Late last evenings, things started to break. We were able to start repositioning some of our crews to come north. Throughout the day and last night, we were moving folks in from some of our northern districts on the eastern side of the state. This morning, we are able to move folks from our southern districts up to help us. By this afternoon, we will have about 70 snow flow trucks out working. The Department of Transportation works two different plans. One is a statewide plan and one is a metro plan. When we have a statewide plan, we have to leave those forces in the districts until their roads are under control. The metro plan, sometimes we are able to reposition those people and have an additional 50 or so pieces of equipment were not able to do that until later to the. We have been very focused on what the governor gave us directions on last night, which is to make sure we got people home safely, get them off the roadway, begin to move these tractor-trailers that continue to clog the roadways and focus on some stranded vehicles so we could treat the roads. We have been treating the roads most of the evening. We have the roadways basically clear from traffic and we are making good progress in that area.

Thank you.

DEAL: We'll get to questions in a few minutes. I'm sure you'll have questions of each of these individuals after they have made their presentations.

Next, I would like to ask Colonel Mark McDonough, the head of the Georgia State Patrol, if he would bring you up to date as to what our state troopers have been doing.


Good morning, everybody. State troopers worked 1,254 accidents during this period. Of that, there were 130 injuries. Thus far, two fatalities. One of the two is weather related and the other is not weather related. As of the last 24 hours, 1,254 accidents, 130 injuries and one weather-related fatality. State troopers have three priorities in particular today. That's escorting DOT equipment to where that equipment needs to be used to clear the roadways. Number two, wrecker services to clear vehicles out to reestablish lanes of travel. And three motor assists, in particularly, two areas. If you have looked at I-20 westbound. All 48,000 commercial vehicles showed up in that area. We are concentrating on six flags hill to get that cleared and to try to get that moving. There is a tractor-trailer that's jackknifed across the river bridge on I-75 before the 285/75 interchange north of town. We are backing resources down into there to remove that and to have DOT to hit that again and try and establish that lane of or that corridor of travel. In particular, Page Porter (ph) of Atlanta towing has been absolutely outstanding in assisting the troopers and the DOT in this effort today. We really appreciate her help in particularly getting the cars out of the way to establish those lanes of travel. So we're working hard. Troopers are working 16 to 20 hour shifts. We have brought in 110 extra personnel from around the state in our pre-planning. We have teams from each of our geographic regions. We have brought those in and they will be here for the duration.

Thank you.

DEAL: Next, let me ask Major General Jim Butterworth, who is head of our National Guard, who will tell you what the National Guard folks have been doing.


Good morning. The National Guard began yesterday at the encouragement of the governor and the GEMA director to ensure that our team was ready and in place for any possibility of the inclement weather. As a result and after a great deal of collaboration, we went into action last night. To date, we have cleared over 40 buses, over 100 passengers that were stranded in buses. Our mission continues to be critical need, specifically food, water and assistance, preferably, assistance to provide transportation to shelters. We can use our resources available to provide that transportation and that is what the governor has encouraged us to continue to do. We received the mandate directly from the governor that we will not rest until 100 percent of individuals that may be in harm's way will offer assistance?

Thank you, Governor.

DEAL: We also have brought in our director of Department of Natural Resources and Commissioner Mark Williams. We'll tell you what his folks are doing as well.


Our DNR rangers are deployed throughout the entire affected region. We have concentrated 15 percent of our entire force in the metro area. Last night, it was stranded children on buses was our primary focus and stranded most motorists. Today, we will move into our priorities with continuing to perform motorist assists, welfare checks of elderly and children as requested, assistance of local L.E. and transport and dispersal of water and MREs. I would also like to tell you about two motorist refuges that were open. We are open at red top mountain state park on exit 285. That's to the north and then to the south is Indian Springs State Park, exit 188. So those will be open for any stranded motorists to seek refuge.

DEAL: Of course, the individual who has overall responsibility through Georgia Emergency Management Agency, Charlie English, we'll sort of give you an overview of how all of these various departments have been working together. Charlie?

CHARLIE ENGLISH, DIRECTOR, GEORGIA EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY: Thank you, Governor. The GEMA responsibility is if all the plans worked as planned, you don't have a lot to do. In events like this, it supersedes all pre-planning. You go into crisis management mode. Our job is to executive priorities were to take care of the schoolchildren, clear the roads and ensure public safety was maintained. The efforts you hear from the state agencies that just spoke, is indicative of that type of teamwork and the task forces that were put together.

DEAL: Thank you, Charlie.

Let me tell you a few other things that we have made sure as much as possible are functioning in speaking to our health agencies of the state of Georgia, that would be folks like our Department of Public Health, Department of Community Health, Department of Human Services and Department of Behavioral Health, they feel that they are fully operational and are able to serve the needs of the people that come within the jurisdiction of their respective agencies. We've also reached out to some of the hospitals, Brady in particular and Children's Health Care of Atlanta and they indicate that they are open and operational. They will, if the need arises, be available to assist if those kinds of health care problems do present themselves.

Now, before we open up for questions, let me just say this. We're going to close state government tomorrow again. We think that's the right thing to do because the weather conditions today, even though it is sunny, will not be warm enough to melt the ice and snow we're having to contend with. So, we do not want our state employees on the roads. We would encourage businesses to follow suit. And encourage their employees to stay home. And the reason is this, we need to be able to get the stranded vehicles removed and we need to be able to treat the roads with the necessary solutions, so as we can melt the ice and remove it as a future hazard. We can't do that if there are vehicles still scattered all over the roadways. So as much as possible, try to keep everybody at home tomorrow. They can telecommute if that is something available within their department of state government or within their personal business. And we would encourage them to certainly do that.

Now, those are -- those are the things that have occurred in a relatively short period of time. We do think that we have made substantial progress with the primary focus being on the school children, to get them off of those buses, to get them into places of security, and now to return them back to their individual homes. And as I indicated, that is taking place.

This has not been just the efforts of the state of Georgia and its resources. It has been the coordinated efforts, along with the city of Atlanta. And mayor, Kasim Reed, who was with us last evening, has had his people working, both independently and jointly with our state resources.

And let me ask the mayor if he would just come forward and give us an update as to what the city has done.

KASIM REED, (D), MAYOR OF ATLANTA: I provided a briefing a short while ago, so I want to make sure the governor has time to communicate with all of you. Our priorities right now really is to assist the state in any way we can in getting the interstates open. We have completed our priority one street, sand and salt effort. We're going to continue that on a 24-hour basis. So, we will continue to work nonstop to get our streets open. And then the next thing that we're going to do is to make sure that we have enough shelters to keep people safe, get them off of the road and get them someplace warm. We've also been providing meals for students in the A.P. system, as governor stated. We have about 400 to 600 more kids that we need to get home today. But what we're focused on is making sure that the resources we have, the Atlanta Fire and Rescue Department, and the officers we have on the police force, are working in a coordinated way with the efforts of the state.

DEAL: All right. That's an overview of who all has been working and what they've been focusing on. Let me see what your questions might be.

QUESTION: There are a lot of folks who have a lot of questions for you because they say the buck stops with the governor. And the question is, you said last night that this was unexpected. So, if you could explain how this was unexpected. Also, how is it that a storm like this can paralyze a city, again, in less than three years?

DEAL: Well, I did not mean to imply that we didn't know something was coming. What I was referring to was that the National Weather Service had continually had their modeling showing that the city of Atlanta would not be the primary area where the storm would hit. That it would be south of Atlanta. You've already heard some of our agencies saying that based on that modeling, they had not brought in some of the resources earlier because they thought they were going to be other parts of the state that were going to be more severely impacted than the metropolitan Atlanta area.

Now, just to give you an idea, as you look at what our interstates look like at 12:15 yesterday, just right after noon, at 12:15 the interstates were coded green. That means everything was moving. By 12:36, it was almost exclusively red. So, within a very short window of time many more motorists got on the roadways. And during that same time frame is when the amount of snow continued to come in a little higher quantity than had many -- than many people had originally anticipated the modeling to be. So, that was the unexpected part of it.

Now, with regard to what could we do to have avoided that? We can't control Mother Nature. Just as we could not make better predictions, neither could school superintendents. That's why the school children were in the situation they were in, because they were probably looking at the same modeling that some of our state folks were looking at as well. We have done a better job, I think, of responding quickly. And I might just add that our goal today is that there will not be anybody stranded in a vehicle on our interstates that has not been offered the opportunity to go to a place of safety and security, where they can be fed, where they will have access to rest rooms, et cetera. Now, some will choose not to leave their vehicle. We understand that. And that has already been the case in some instances. But in those cases, we are offering to them food, water, whatever they need in terms of a blanket or whatever else might make them more comfortable. One of the real problems that we have had, and I think that in talking with agency heads that we have to probably pay a little more attention to, is the obstruction that is occurring because of the large 18-wheelers who are jackknifed across our roads and even under the best of circumstances, when they get cross-ways of a roadway, even though it's multi-lane roadway, it is virtual impossible for private vehicles to get around them. That's one of the major obstructions we have.

I might ask Keith to come up and talk about requirements that have been put in place that would require certain truckers to have chains on their trucks and, of course, the idea being that you're not supposed to be inside the perimeter with an 18-wheeler unless you're making deliveries inside the perimeter itself.

QUESTION: Governor, the National Weather Service and local meteorologists between 6:00 and 7:00 this morning were predicting up to 2 inches north of I-20. They were saying the storm was coming. We knew it would hit in the middle of the afternoon.

DEAL: Well, I've talked to some of your meteorologists. Let me say that there were a couple who said they were disagreeing with the National Weather Service. And they were trying to get the National Weather Service to update their modeling. But it did not occur at the National Weather Service modeling quick enough for us to be able to rely on that as take change of direction.

QUESTION: You're not saying that you don't -- you're not saying that the meteorologists were right and the National Weather Service was wrong?

DEAL: I'm saying that some of the local meteorologists were more correct on their predictions, that the storm center might be 50 miles north of where the National Weather Service's modeling had indicated that it would be. And I think --


QUESTION: So who made the decision here? To let this unfold throughout the day as it unfolded?

DEAL: Well, by -- at 10:00 yesterday morning, we had already made the decision with regard to our state employees. And we told them, based on weather conditions, now if you need to leave, are you free to do so. Some of them did. We don't have control over what private businesses do. We don't have control over what school systems do. Those are independent calls on their part.

I think what has happened -- and I don't blame anyone. Mother Nature has a mind of its own and it does what it chooses to do. And even with the best of forecasting, I don't think anyone could have totally predicted that this was going to have the magnitude, within the short window of time in which it occurred. I do think that some of our local meteorologists were much more correct than the national forecasters were.

QUESTION: The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning overnight, Monday night.

QUESTION: Before 10:00 in the morning.

QUESTION: You had several hours prior to the first went out around 9 a.m. Had you six or nine hours of lead time for that. Is the lesson here that you have to take more advantage of that lead time if the National Weather Service issues --


DEAL: I think if you check what the National Weather Service did, what I have learned in talking to local meteorologists, they did somewhat of a downgrade of it.

QUESTION: The night before.

DEAL: The night before.

QUESTION: The morning of the storm they upgraded it all the way up to a warning.

DEAL: OK. I'm not going to get into an argument about what the National Weather Service did. I want to pay tribute to the local meteorologists that I think they were more correct than the National Weather Service forecasters.

QUESTION: Governor, if I could follow up, I was -- I was at --


QUESTION: Why didn't you declare a state of emergency before the storm hit rather than after?

DEAL: 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 --