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GA Officials Update Storm Response

Aired January 30, 2014 - 13:30   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The Georgia governor is talking about the disastrous situation in Atlanta over the past couple of days.

NATHAN DEAL, (R), GOVERNOR OF GEORGIA: -- make preparations early enough to avoid these consequences. As a parent, I certainly understand how someone would feel if their child was either on a school bus or at a school and unable to come back home.

Accepting that responsibility up front, though, let me tell you what our focus has been in trying to deal with those circumstances and review for you what our actions were, what our priorities were, and where we are in terms of making those priorities become a reality for solution.

First of all, as you know, I made the priority of those school children the first thing that we should concentrate on. We had school buses, who were stopped on roadways and could not complete their routes. And we, of course, had children who were required to stay in those schools overnight. Our first focus was to make sure that those school environments were safe. Again, thanks to the teachers and the administrators who served in those schools who did their very best. And also thanks to the Georgia State Patrol and to the National Guard, especially the Georgia State Patrol who had their people at all of the school sites that were required to keep children overnight. We have not heard of any adverse incidents that occurred because of lack of safety protections. So I think that part was done very well.

With regard to getting those children home, we have made that a priority. As of yesterday, all school children were returned. And that was done over multiple school districts, who were affected by the storm.

Now, yesterday and today, another of our priorities has been to deal with those vehicles that are stranded on our roadways. And you will hear more details about that issue from the agency heads who have been involved in getting those vehicles removed in just a moment. But in dealing with those stranded vehicles, first of all, we wanted to make sure that everyone who was in a vehicle was given the opportunity to leave if they chose to do so. If they needed water or food, to provide that to them. And the multiple agencies that were working on this by all reports have done a very good job in that regard.

Now, we continued yesterday to continue the road clearing efforts. And you will hear from the department as to how effective that has been. I took an aerial view of the interstate system around the city. And there were a few spots that still required action as of the middle of the day yesterday and into the afternoon. By the end of the afternoon, I'm told that even those spots were cleared. One involved a wreck that had occurred at the intersection of 285 and I-75 north where apparently an 18-wheeler had jackknifed.

Now, I also want to assure you that our Department of Natural Resources have made their people and their equipment available to be sure that hospitals had adequate blood supplies and adequate other supplies that they needed to keep their hospitals operational. And apparently, that was also successful.

Today, since the sun is out and hopefully the temperatures are going to stay above freezing for a few hours, we're going to put a concentrated effort on getting those additional stranded vehicles removed from our interstate, highways, the sides of those highways, and in the medians themselves.

To tell you what has been done in that regard and to tell you what some future preparations in that regard will be, I'm going to call on Colonel McDonough of Georgia State Patrol to give you an update on that -- Colonel?


Good afternoon, everybody. As of 10:00 a.m. this morning 1,521 traffic crashes were worked by state troopers. 184 injuries. And still only one weather-related fatality here in the metro Atlanta area. We have assisted 1,185 motorists during that period of time, changing tires, getting them off the roadway, taking care of any needs that they might have. We've also used our helicopters to take food and water to those areas, and actually landed in those sections of the interstate so that there was food and water available to those that had been there for an extended period of time.

Yesterday, our efforts were very clear, our goal was to ensure that the roadway was clear and that we were assisting the DOT in the effort to get the product on the roadway and to get things cleared, and also to concentrate on the citizens. Last night, over 2,029 vehicles were checked by state troopers to ensure that no one was in the vehicle and that we didn't have anybody still stranded out in the roadway. And I can report that nobody came into contact with anybody that was still stranded in that capacity.

So what about today? It's obvious that we have a large commute coming tomorrow morning. If you come into this town, it starts at about 4:00 to 5:00 a.m. This is the time for us to try to get the roadways completely cleared of those vehicles, and particularly those vehicles that are in the emergency lanes. So we want to ask the public as the day warms up -- and thank god for the sunshine -- that they start moving in a safe fashion to go and recover their vehicles. State troopers will be in the area as well as National Guardsmen there to provide security for the vehicles and safety as they recover it. And we've actually established two locations, one at Mt. Perrin Baptist Church on O-75 and West Lake MARTA Station on I-20, where citizens, if they need help, can go there. And we have personnel to help take them out on to the interstate and help them recover their vehicles.

Now, there's a point at which we've got to stop a recovery and then start thinking about that safety for the commute tomorrow. So at 9:00 tonight, state troopers are going to start looking particularly at 285 and the interstate system inside of 285, and then 75 up to the 575 interchange and I-20 all the way out to what's known as Six Flags Hill on mile marker 47. And after 9:00 tonight, if troopers come upon vehicles that are still have not gotten from the roadway and are in the emergency lanes, we will be removing those vehicles from the roadway. Because anticipation for the normal commute tomorrow, we want to make sure that the interstate system is properly managed and we provide a safe environment.

Thank you.

DEAL: Thank you, Colonel.

The efforts on getting stranded motorists back to their vehicles has been one that the National Guard has had a prominent role in.

I'm going to ask the adjunct general to come and tell what he's been doing in that effort.


As you recall, our first priority was to respond and provide to critical needs. At this point, our priority is to provide safety and transportation assistance, as is necessary. We are assisting with the two sites that the colonel mentioned. And we will continue to do that, provide a presence to ensure the safety as we continue. And those are basically our ongoing missions. We have, at this point, about 189, to be exact, individuals that are providing these assistance, continuing with 50 vehicles throughout the metro Atlanta area at any of the critical need areas.

Thank you.

DEAL: Thank you, sir.

I had originally planned to have commissioner of DOT here but he got called away to his operational headquarters. Quite honestly, I would rather have him there than at a news conference. I want him to be taking care of the business that the Department of Transportation sees as appropriate.

But let me just sort of summarize what they are doing. They are continuing to treat streets, especially those that are the most vulnerable areas. And because the temperatures apparently are going to return below freezing tonight, be as much as possible pre-treating those especially vulnerable areas, which are overpasses and some of our elevated entrances and exits off of our interstate system. That will be their primary focus as they prepare for the rest of the week.

The individuals who have concerns about their vehicles, we have agreed that the most appropriate thing for them to do would be to call the 511 number. It will be a coordinated effort between the state patrol and the Department of Transportation. And they will be able to give individuals appropriate answers in the event after the 9:00 deadline in the event their vehicle has been removed as to where they can go and where those vehicles will be located.

Now, there will be those areas outside of the area that the colonel has indicated where local jurisdictions will also probably be exercising their authority to clear some of the roadways. So it would be appropriate for individuals who know if they are left their vehicle inside the jurisdiction of a municipality probably to check with that municipality. We will, however, at the 511 number, have people who can tell them if they can describe where their vehicle was left, tell them where to go or who to contact if it has been removed by someone other than the state authorities.

Now, let me conclude with this before I open it up to your questions. I know your questions have been, have I been satisfied with the response that was made, and my answer is an unequivocal, no, I am not satisfied with the response that was made. I have asked for an internal review by all of the agencies that are involved in this process. We've had a preliminary meeting on that already today. We have had offers of external review from other outside agencies, who we will accept their input. And the result of all of that is we will be compiling a new plan of action for similar events in the future. I think we did not respond fast enough. We did not respond in the magnitude at an earlier enough time to be able to avoid some of these consequences. We can make excuses about the fact that this happened in the middle of the day during a workweek. That did, of course, complicate the situation. But nevertheless, we will be much more cautious and much more aggressive in terms of taking action in advance of future situations. What that will mean is there may be situations in which the public may be offended by what appears to be preparatory action when looking at the skies does not seem to indicate that anything is going to happen. And there will be some situations in which we will take preparatory action in which there very well might not be anything that occurs. But it is necessary if we're going to prepare our roadways that we have the ability to do so without the ordinary traffic that is sometimes found, as you know, around the donut of Atlanta. We will be taking those actions, but I will keep you informed of that. We will have a press conference once we have compiled all of that information.

Now, having said that I'm not satisfied, I'm not going to look for a scapegoat. I'm the governor. The buck stops with me. I accept the responsibility for it. But I also accept the responsibility of being able to make corrective actions as they come in the future. And that's what the public can expect from our office.

And once again, commending all of those private citizens and our schools, on the roadways for their help of their fellow citizens as this disaster unfolded here in the metro Atlanta area.

With that, let me stop and I'll take your questions.

Yes, sir.


DEAL: I would say that our preparation was not adequate. And in that extent, yes, it was not adequate. Yes, I accept responsibility for that.

REPORTER: And is it something we have to accept in the future that when we get two inches of snow, the city will be dysfunctional?


DEAL: Well, I certainly hope not. But I think we have to understand that we did not have all of our resources concentrating here in the metro area, because we had been led to believe that it was going to be south of here, in areas of our state that are less prepare and had municipal areas that are less prepared than the metro Atlanta area. When we realized that that did not occur, at least to the extent that it had been originally predicted, we began to shift those resources and personnel back to the metro area. And that took a little longer than perhaps some people would think that it should. But it did involve moving equipment and personnel. So we adjusted to it, but we did not have it in place because we did not fully anticipate the magnitude of what was going to happen here.


REPORTER: What would you like to have seen happen Tuesday that did not happen Tuesday? Realizing, getting out faster.

DEAL: Well, I would have liked to have seen us have more preparation on the roadways in terms of treatment on the roadways. DOT did take that action earlier in the day of treating the bridges and some of the overpass areas, but there again, the treatment itself has a limited life span. And in some areas that were treated, by the time the snow actually did start coming, it was beginning to freeze over at that point in time. I would have liked for us to have done a better job in that regard. I would have liked for us to have been able to tell the people of the city of Atlanta and those who had anticipations of coming here that this is going to be a very dangerous situation and we ask you not to come inside of our perimeter. Now, that would have caused some real consternation with people hearing that warning at a time in the morning when they didn't see anything happening. And I'm not sure that they would have totally abided by that warning, but I think it would have been good had we been able to do that and to say that.

REPORTER: The trucks started too early?

DEAL: I'm sorry.

REPORTER: Are you saying DOT trucks started too early?

DEAL: No, not at all. Not at all. I'm saying we did not do it to the magnitude we would have liked to have them do.

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE QUESTION) DEAL: Maybe earlier, and maybe being able to stop some of the traffic as it was coming in on what appeared to be a still clear morning and be able to put greater treatments down on the roadways. That would have caused some inconvenience and backup, but in hindsight, that would have been preferable.

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE) -- a sign to listen to the weather forecast of the winter storm warning at 3:39 in the morning that somebody in the state would have responded quicker?

DEAL: Well, that is what our Emergency Management Agency does. I have Charley English, the head of the agency, here if you all want to direct questions.


REPORTER: Yesterday you seemed to not be necessarily in touch with the conditions of the roads when gridlock started.

Mr. English, could you address what seemed to be maybe a lack of information about the condition of roads on Tuesday afternoon?

CHARLEY ENGLISH, DIRECTOR, GEORGIA EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY: First, I'd like to say I made a terrible error in judgment earlier -- late on Monday afternoon and early Tuesday. And I further, as you mentioned, made a -- some inaccurate and regretful statements at the press conference yesterday. In the future, you can rest assured that when forecasts change, there will be a much more aggressive response on the -- not just GEMA, but the state team we're responsible for coordinating. I really don't want to get into the -- necessarily the reasons I said what I did yesterday. But sure, it was bad. There was terrible traffic out there. But it was my fault, at that time, that it was a terrible traffic jam being exacerbated by the onset of snow. But we did not have, at that point in time, other than traffic remediation issues to deal with at 2:00 and 3:00 in the afternoon.


ENGLISH: Now, now, now -- but I should have declared the state operation center open sooner, six hours sooner. And also with regard to the state employees I should have recommended that sooner.

REPORTER: When is the first time you communicated with the governor about just how serious this emergency might be?

ENGLISH: It was mid-morning on Tuesday.

REPORTER: What's mid-morning?

ENGLISH: 9:00, 9:30.

REPORTER: Warning came in at 3:40 in the morning. The storm warning came in at 3:40 in the morning. Are you saying the governor didn't know about that until 9:00 in the morning?

ENGLISH: Right. REPORTER: Were you sleeping when the alert came in or when the warning was announced?

ENGLISH: If it came in at 3:30, I was. If it came in at 4:30, I was not.


REPORTER: Mr. English, why were you not at that emergency operations, since it rolled out, keeping an eye on things yourself as the emergency management director?

ENGLISH: Well, at that particular time -- there is one other thing I have to say before I answer your question there. Although I made a terrible mistake and I put the government in an awful position, I probably make 50 decisions a year on whether or not to activate the state operation sooner. Maybe not sending people home, but bring in extra forces. I have done that for 16 years. I hate that it happened in this instance and I hate that that led to a less than stellar response -- had we started earlier.


ENGLISH: But the fact of the matter is we get punched with weather information. I have to make decisions based on that, whether the information, whether it's warnings, whether it's watching, whether it's special statements, whether regardless of the situation, and I got this one wrong. I got it wrong by at least six hours.

REPORTER: Why would you not be there?

ENGLISH: Well, we have people 24 hours a day. And I was aware of the situation. I made the decision of not to do anything until later that morning.

REPORTER: Mr. English, I talked to people in other governmental entities who got that warning at 3:40, and by 4:00, they made the decision to shut down the school systems. They were on top of it. They were reading the warnings and they were communicating with all the leaders in their school systems. Why wouldn't that be going on here with the state of Georgia?

ENGLISH: I think that's great on their part, but I -- just to give you another example, we had a similar situation coming in, certainly not to the same magnitude, but schools closed for two days and the roads weren't bad. And we didn't do anything then. Not saying I got that call right, but that was another call.


REPORTER: Were you pressured by the governor not to declare a state of emergency?

ENGLISH: Oh, absolutely not. No, absolutely not.


REPORTER: Governor --

ENGLISH: I'm in the middle -- we are in the middle of an operation.

DEAL: Yes, sir.

REPORTER: Governor, you didn't know about the winter storm warning until 9:00 in the morning?

DEAL: I didn't know it had been changed from what I had heard late on the Monday evening. I did not know that it had been upgraded and a more serious warning had been issued.

REPORTER: We get phone messages that update us when a winter storm warning is announced. Do you have that?

DEAL: We do. We do. Just because I didn't necessarily get those, does not mean I did not have major staff involved in that.


DEAL: We have a connectivity with my chief of staff, with several of our other advisers on the staff here. They are tied directly to the e-mails that come out of GEMA.

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE). Who on your staff was getting this information formulating the decision?

DEAL: Well, that goes primarily to the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. But the independent agencies that you heard had taken action on their own. The Department of Highway had already taken action on their own.

Let me clear up the issue on school systems. Let me tell you about the school systems.


DEAL: Absolutely.

Let me tell you the school systems. We don't have authority to tell local systems whether they should be open on a day or not be open on a day. The judgment calls are made by those based on the information that they have. One of the areas I think we can strengthen is to make sure they have as good of information as possible as early as possible. Because as you know, especially in our more rural areas where buses start running very early in the morning, school superintendents have to make those calls extremely early in the morning. I think we can improve that. That would be an area we are exploring. We will be talking with school superintendents about what would help them to make those independent judgment calls. And if we have information, can we share it to you and under what circumstance.

(CROSSTALK) REPORTER: Had you declared a state of emergency earlier, they would have gotten that message much, much earlier.

DEAL: I don't have any guarantee of that. I don't have any guarantee of that at all. No.

REPORTER: Do you think the school district would have started the process sooner to close the schools and tell kids not to come at all?

DEAL: I'm not sure. They actually started before they declared a state of emergency. They operated on their own initiative, thankfully. Even that, of course, was not early enough.

REPORTER: Those of you who had not already would have heeded your leadership in that moment.

DEAL: Well, I think we can strengthen that relationship between the systems and our office of emergency management. We will do everything we can to make sure you can make it as seamless as possible so they can make the best calls available to them.


REPORTER: After 2011, they were specifically given the responsibility to coordinate action between state and local officials and the school districts. Why didn't that happen? Why didn't you do that?

DEAL: As you heard, the determination was made that it did not justify us declaring a state of emergency. That was the basis on which the decision was made there. As a result, it did not activate those other activities.

Maybe Charley can elaborate.


REPORTER: -- say to the rest of the country that looks --


DEAL: I'll let him answer this question.

ENGLISH: I will say that on Monday there was a lot of coordination going on as early as 10:30 in the morning with the weather services office and the local units of government, and then again at 1:00 in the afternoon. There was dialogue with local emergency management organizations and other state entities that there were predictions at hand. I didn't think -- the coordination was going on. I did not raise the level of alert soon enough to activate the state operations center to get everybody in the room to do that.


REPORTER: If I may, it sounds like what you and the governor are saying is the headliner, that is state officials swapped the first five hours of the winter storm watch. Is that fair? ENGLISH: No, that's not fair.


REPORTER: The storm warning, what happened during the five hours?

ENGLISH: We had previously --


REPORTER: It doesn't sound like anything happened. You didn't alert anybody.



REPORTER: Is this the second time --


REPORTER: You were asleep as this winter storm warning was issued?

DEAL: My staff was in constant contact with GEMA.


DEAL: About me? I was not awake at 3:15 in the morning. No, certainly not. I became aware of it as soon as I got to the office early that morning, probably somewhere around 7:30 to 8:00 in the morning. I don't know that it was too late. Certainly things could have been done earlier than that.

I think you need to understand we were prodding on this issue, as you will notice from some of the e-mails that I think you have seen from my chief of staff to GEMA. We were concerned about it. We kept asking the questions about, is there something else we need to be doing? Unfortunately, we did not get the right answer.



DEAL: I hold him accountability for his mistake, but I also am one that believes that he has given 16 years of adequate and above adequate public service to our state. I do not look for scapegoats, as I said earlier. I think he is now prepared to make remedial action and to tell us what it's going to be. I hope we don't have an opportunity to understand whether or not that remedial action may prevent something like this in the future.


DEAL: In the back.

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE QUESTION) DEAL: We will hold people accountable, but we also hold people accountable for what they are going to do to prevent it in the future. We don't simply say you made a mistake, you go, take the blame with you. I don't believe that's the way to operate.

Yes, ma'am?


DEAL: I will answer your question. Let me get hers.

REPORTER: -- didn't' quite work out maybe the way some people had thought. Is it time to take a look at our (INAUDIBLE) system, think about legislation, think about solutions?

DEAL: Well, obviously, that's always an ongoing point of discussion about our entire network.