The Story of SNOWPOCALYPSE

We’ve all seen the headlines.

2″ of snow SHUTS DOWN MAJOR CITY!

People STRANDED in cars after light dusting of the white stuff!

SNOW catches South UNPREPARED!

They might as well read:

Why Southerners are STUPID, UNEDUCATED, CAN’T INTERPRET WEATHER FORECASTS, WILLFULLY NEGLIGENT, and CAN NOT DRIVE IN SNOW MOST OF THE WORLD CONSIDERS A PIDDLY AMOUNT!

We know.  We hear your scorn.  We recognize the superior tone in your voice.  WE GET IT.

But I’m wondering if perhaps YOU don’t get it.  But maybe there is something for everyone to learn.

 

Problem #1: Most of the forecasts that I saw were predicting little to no snow for my area of Atlanta (35 miles north of the perimeter).  {I cannot speak to those in Central/South Georgia because I have no clue what their forecasts were–I firmly believe that they are an entirely different world from where I live.}  Even at 11:00 pm the night before, the forecast called for 50% chance of light dusting.  Most of the predicted accumulation was forecasted to be in South Atlanta and below.  Y’all–Atlanta is HUGE.  And you have to understand that most of the people who work in Atlanta have fairly long commutes (35 miles according to the Clean Air Campaign Website).  Atlanta is a sprawling city with an admittedly sparse public transportation system for those who live outside of the city limits (which is mostly EVERYONE).  We’ve been through countless SNOWPOLCALYPSE! inflated news stories and kept students out of school for the letdown of not one single snowflake.  And that’s a sad story.  I’ll throw out a figure I made up off the top of my head based on my personal experience and say that only 1 out of every 5 SNOWPOCALYPSE forecasts even amounts to any flurries at all.  And the few times we’ve gotten enough snow to actually be noteworthy–meaning, it sticks and doesn’t immediately melt, it was VERY definitive that it was coming.  There was NO DOUBT.  So we generally assume that if there’s less than a 100% chance of snow, it does not snow.  The snow forecasted (at least for my area) was still only up to a 50% chance of a dusting up to 1 inch (measured at the deep parts of the yard) at 6:30 am and scheduled to start in the afternoon–perhaps 3-ish.  Weather in Atlanta is notoriously changeable. Try being a forecaster for Atlanta.  The weather–it’s a roller coaster.   On Sunday (two days before Snowpocalypse), it was nearly 60 degrees.  So I just want to paint an accurate picture of the forecast–not especially menacing.  The snow, of course, arrived MUCH earlier than anticipated and came MUCH farther north than originally forecast.  In fact, I would say it was about 50 miles north of where it was forecasted to be.  Suddenly, my area, forecasted to have a dusting, was getting 2-3 inches.  Atlanta–forecasted to get very little in the northern suburbs–was getting ‘hammered’ well before the anticipated arrival time.

Problem #2: Most of the time when we get snow, it comes overnight.  That is because night time is generally the only time that our temperatures get low enough for snow to even be a possibility.  We wake up to a silent, white reality and it is very obvious that we are all staying home to play in this rare gift.  It is very rare indeed that snow moves in when the sun is out.  In fact, I do not remember any notable snowfall that started during the daylight hours…perhaps in 1993?  So when it came in while the sun was out, people were already at work!  It wasn’t supposed to be here yet!  It was SUPPOSED to be a dusting!  EVERYONE WAS AT SCHOOL AND WORK!  (My understanding is that in the places where snow was more definitively forecasted, they preemptively closed schools and businesses.)  But in Atlanta, and specifically northern Atlanta, this was not supposed to happen.

Problem #3: Around here, due to massive budget restrictions, some school districts are at their minimum number of days required to qualify for federal funding.  There is a misconception that systems build in for extra snow days and they do to some extent but there just aren’t as many extra days built into the system as there were in years past.  We just don’t need them and we haven’t been able to afford them.  We had already used some for the extremely cold temperatures earlier in January (which is another issue for Northern condescension).  Also, in the past, we’ve added any used snow days to the end of our school year which is always possible but not as effective for instruction as having them in their regular slot.  This is, of course, up for debate about the “worth it” factor regarding student safety but I think I’ve made the case that no one expected it to be that bad in Northern Atlanta.  There is another misconception that schools decide to release school and five minutes later, schools are empty.  No.  Machinations much be run, processes must be implemented and followed, parents must be notified, buses and drivers must be prepared and sent out.  Some districts have two or three rounds of busing for the same elementary school.  It’s complicated.  There are few students able to walk.  And it’s not always feasible or easy to call for early release at the last second.  I think everyone can appreciate what a nightmare that is for schools and parents.  But that’s what happened.  Many districts called for parents to come get their children.  Some didn’t and perhaps they should have but these things are always much clearer in hindsight with the benefit of complete data.

Problem #4:  But what Problem #3 did was create a rush out of Atlanta as panicked parents left work to meet their kids at the bus stop or to grab their kids from school.  All of this happened RIGHT as the snow was beginning to fall in earnest and officials, businesses, and schools realized that this was going to get worse a lot quicker than we thought.  So this created gridlock in Atlanta as businesses let workers go, buses tried to maneuver increasingly impassable roads, and people scrambled to escape from inside the perimeter.   Traffic in Atlanta ALWAYS sucks.  Even over the course of a three to four hour gradual release of workers that constitutes regular evening commute.  It can go sideways in a short time and a major event on one interstate or major secondary artery can gum up the whole system for hours on a sunny day in summer.  Secondary streets in Atlanta are just not set up to handle the crush of the evening commute without the support of the interstate system.  The system JUST BARELY can handle the capacity when all of the interstates are relatively incident-free.  When the interstates started getting jammed with almost ALL of the workers trying to leave at the exact same time, while the secondary streets were becoming parking lots while the interstates became impassable sheets of ice, it quickly became a nightmare.  (More on why everything became impassable later.)  So, mass exodus + poor driving conditions + buses and commuters on the roads at the same time = recipe for disaster and normally long commutes spiraling to crazy times (7 hours or more).  People got tired of sitting in one spot for 2 hours after moving 2 blocks in their first 3 hours and they abandoned their cars for warmth, bathrooms, and the distinct and disheartening truth that they could literally get home faster if they walked.  This did not help with gridlock–as understandable as it is.

Problem #5: Referring to actual meteorological history here, Atlanta has little history of Major Snow Systems.  Sure, we get one every two or three years but relative to October-March in Northern States, our 1 storm with 2-3 inches of snow every three years is negligible.  I’ve already mentioned that Atlanta is sprawling with a lot of secondary arteries and a lot of commuters.  Acquiring, maintaining, staffing, and employing enough equipment to handle snow properly for all of the asphalt that we use for our commutes is just not financially feasible.  We would spend countless amounts of money on fighting the rust as the equipment sat mostly idle.  And even during years of a “major storm”, the equipment would be used for those few days–that’s it.  Georgia is not the most cash-flush state–and even if it were, that’s just a ridiculous use of money when there are so many more pertinent and continuously pressing needs.   So no.  We don’t have a lot in the way of snowplows, salters, spreaders, etc.  I would draw the parallel that many houses in the Northern States do not have an air conditioning system.  Why?  Because it would only be used two or three days a year.  We use our A/C systems 8-9 months out of the year.  It’s worth the money we’ve invested because we use it constantly.  Or rather let’s compare force of nature to force of nature?  How many New York residents have tornado shelters or have a tornado plan?  We do.  We have countless tornado drills and warnings here and most of us are prepared for that type of emergency down to our bottled waters and basement plans.  What?  You guys aren’t tornado-prepared??  Tsk, tsk.  How foolish.  See what I mean?  Someone stated that whether we were used to snow or not, we should have an emergency plan.  Perhaps so, but let’s be realistic.  We do emergency preparedness for things that are a likely possibility.  I don’t notice many people on the East Coast preparing emergency plans for earthquakes because it’s not practical to waste time, energy, and money preparing for something that seldom happens.

Problem #6: As I mentioned earlier, two days prior to the storm’s arrival, the temperature was 60 degrees.  Our ground is NOT frozen.  We barely maintain temperatures below freezing for more than a couple of days at a time.  My understanding of most Northern states is that there are extended stretches of cold weather where the ground gets good and cold.  I may have a limited understanding of snow’s behavior (again: little exposure) so correct me if I am wrong.  If snow falls on ground that is frozen, it maintains its ‘snow’ form (to some extent).  Snow is much easier to drive on/in and clear off of the streets by a constantly deployed fleet of snow equipment.  When snow falls on warm ground, it immediately melts and refreezes (if air temperatures are cold enough).  This creates ice which we all know is impossible to drive on safely.  So that snow that was falling? Immediately turned into ice.  On the interstates/overpasses and secondary streets and everywhere else.  You know, the streets upon which the mass of Atlanta humanity were trying to use to pick up kids or begin their long commutes home when everyone realized that the storm was not following the forecast.  Damn impertinent, that Mother Nature, huh?

Problem #7: We are not prepared for driving in snow and ice.  See everything above.  I read earlier today that snow tires are to be used only when the temperature is below 45 degrees.  We would be changing our tires out left and right as even during the coldest month of winter, it isn’t consistently 45 degrees or below for more than a a stretch of a few days at a time.  That’s not because we’re ignorant.  It’s just because there is very little need for us to purchase those sorts of things.  We also don’t have snow boots, parkas, snowsuits (unless we go skiing–which isn’t even available in our state), snowshoes, or snow shovels.

 

I hope this sheds some light on why any snow storm bring things to a halt and why this particular snowstorm was almost the perfect confluence of circumstances to create a situation where students spent the night on buses or at school and people spent the night in their cars on the interstate.  It’s not pretty.  Could it have been handled in a more effective way?  Without a doubt.  But it’s always easier to use hindsight for finding fault for decisions made without the benefit of complete data and with a sense of urgency.

More than How The South Fails at Snow, this should be a story of how Southerns showed their humanity.  Immediately, social media helped people set up groups to offer shelter, food, warmth, blankets, and support to those who were stuck in miserable conditions.  I’ve heard very few incidents of people losing it while waiting in traffic.  I’ve heard stories of strangers helping strangers,  teachers comforting kids who missed their parents, and students who handled stressful situations with humor.  From people standing alongside the road in the cold, handing out hot chocolate and PBJ sandwiches to businesses opening their stores (and furniture departments) for stranded commuters, this story has the ring of survival.  It has the ring of people helping others, of people persevering through difficulty, and banding together to slog through the hardships of difficult circumstances together.  It sounds like the story of The South.

Tags: , , , , ,

6 Responses to “The Story of SNOWPOCALYPSE”

  1. Cakeburnette Says:

    BRAVO for this!!

  2. Dannella Burnett Says:

    Grace,
    You have it, the underlying issues, the pulse, the story, the whole picture… on the Snowpalooza that will go down in history for 2014. Thank you for your ability to put the world around us and in us into words. Love it!
    Dannella

  3. Carol Ann Wood Says:

    THANK YOU for this!

  4. Carol Says:

    Grace for (insert political arena here) you are right on the money! Thank you!

  5. Cyndee Says:

    wow this is well written and thought through.

  6. Auntie KJ Says:

    You go girl! Your writing is incredible as usual. Proud of you, kiddo!

Leave a Reply