REPOST: What we learned from SnowJam ‘14

1/28/2019 — This originally appeared on in 2014 and we publish it again today, on the five year anniversary of one of the worst traffic jams in Atlanta history. 

February 1, 2014

As I write this, it's the night before the Super Bowl - a time when people will forcibly plant themselves in front of the TV to watch a bunch of brutes brave chilly extremes and fight tooth and nail to a desired outcome. That is exactly what we got tired of doing Tuesday through Thursday of this week, as most of Atlanta's population had a dog in the fight we could call a "Stupor Bowl." An unpredictable, wintry side of Mother Nature pantsed Metro Atlanta's infrastructure, grinding the city to a stranded halt on iced, clogged roads in dangerous cold. The blame game started as soon as the chaos began unfolding midday Tuesday, with public officials becoming the rightful focus of angst. Weren't we prepared this time? This kind of thing happened in 2011 and paralyzed Atlanta again? People wanted answers and the next few weeks will continue to bring more - which will likely bring more questions. Mayor Kasim Reed faced the most criticism he ever has in his four-plus years at Atlanta's helm. Governor Nathan Deal had to track and back track more than a tractor trailer trying to climb the icy hill on I-75 near Mt. Paran, as he finally took the blame for the state of Georgia's ineptitude in preparing for the emergency. GEMA, GA-DOT, the City of Atlanta, the State of Georgia, and the various school districts all deserve their rightful blame. But we as the private sector also need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves what we could have done to make our own situations better in this civil emergency. And that is where this becomes a traffic blog post and not a political editorial.

Traffic was the key difference between this winter storm being a fun, rare Atlanta snow event and a life-threatening, patience-trying struggle. A big reason that most of the city got cryogenically frozen for a day is the sheer timing of the unpredictable storm. We planned for Tuesday, based on what we thought we knew Monday night: it would probably hit after lunch at the earliest and the worst hit would be south of Atlanta. As Tuesday dawned, WSB meteorologist Kirk Melhuish's (how it's really spelled - you probably know it as "Mellish") forecast broadened the time of "the hit" to as early as late morning and, even with more snow south of the city expected, at least 1-2 inches in Atlanta - which is more than enough to throw Atlanta into a tizzy. He and I exchanged emails about this several times and he said it on-air - at the time most people got caught, there was only a 1/2 inch or so of snow on the ground, so the fact that more than two inches fell in total was kind of moot. And, even if the storm had hit later, people still would have sat in the same gridlock - it just would have started later. Melhuish wonderfully outlines the system's unpredictability and some stats from past Atlanta snowfall in his latest weather blog post.

So we all planned as if this winter storm would unfold in the best of circumstances, which is never how Atlanta should handle anything - especially winter. Schools opened and figured they would just send kids home early in a worst case scenario (you know, because that isn't complicated or anything). The private and public sectors went to work like normal, with pregnant anticipation of having the next day off (even though conservative forecasts said the storm could hit while people were still at work and school). There may have been a rush on milk and bread at stores...but I didn't hear of a rush on snow chains or see one car on the news with any chains secured on the tires. Why? Because, who uses snow chains here? Where would you even buy them? This is Atlanta! That's the attitude that leaves us on the wrong end of these winter traffic disasters every time.

That same attitude has to be what stunted preparation by the public sector. The DOT did not treat the roads based on the updated forecasts saying the storm could hit earlier and harder in Atlanta. GEMA's emergency command center was not in place until the middle of the day, which was the biggest mistake of the entire event. Governor Deal and Mayor Reed were, of all things, at an awards ceremony as the storm closed in northwest of town. With a winter storm warning from the National Weather Service in place since just after 3:30 a.m., all properties should have been preparing for the worst, instead of hoping for the best. And even after people became stranded, the urgency of emergency seemed lax. People sat, for example, on I-285 stranded for nearly a day before anyone came to their aide. There were cars with babies in them and the parents were running out food and diapers. If any had died, heads would have rolled. The fact that people were in potentially deadly situations means that heads still should roll and maybe some will. Some public services seemed to wait too long to truly rise to the pitch of what was actually happening.

And that's how we all got stuck. Expecting the city to have the same know how and equipment to deal with what is considered a small weather event to northerners may be a pipe dream. So that means we need to accept what we know and have and always prepare for the worst with our five loaves and two fish. Next time snow threatens anywhere close to town, we all - public and private - can do a few things: plan for the worst and cancel work and school before arriving at said destinations; have road crews and emergency managers in place to act before the earliest estimate of the storm's arrival; keep overnight bags and emergency supplies in our vehicles (non-perishable foods, water, changes of clothes, blankets, hygiene supplies, etc.); not trying to venture out in these unfamiliar elements to us, as we almost certainly will wreck or get stuck (which would have both made our lives easier and made the jobs of road crews, emergency responders, and traffic reporters easier, too); public officials sending out traveler's advisories (like we at WSB do on-air and online) to surrounding states and trucking companies, so they know that travel through Georgia will be impossible and their getting stuck will only make it worse.

As the blame game started Tuesday, I posed this question on Facebook and Twitter: who was surprised by the storm? I think anyone that answered honestly would have said they were. We live in a culture of complacency and Georgians are as complacent as ever in winter weather and traffic situations. Believe it or not, our public officials are also Georgians. They weren't the only buffoons in this icy cluster-fornication - we were in this together. That is actually good news, because the next time it happens, we actually don't have to rely on just the government to make the experience better for us. They have their large responsibilities and we have our own. Knowing what we have again been reminded of this week, Atlanta will be paralyzed the next time significant winter weather makes a direct hit - just as it was in '82, '93, '00, and '11 and other times. Hopefully we have learned to prepare and to not "bravely" go out in the mess and drive.

Atlanta's dysfunctional reputation took another hit nationally this week, but that's okay - if we learn from it. We learned some from the 2011 storm, which made only some difference this time around. If we don't learn from this, Atlanta will lose billions in the long run. Hollywood will leave town. And no new dome will ever attract another Super Bowl (which got a direct hit in the 2000 ice storm - the last time Atlanta hosted it). Let's show the nation together that we can work through this much better the next time, instead of living in the clouds and hoping the snow won’t hit us again..

A time capsule of what actually happened on the roads during the storm:

Let me step down from my soap box (or is it an icebox) to list a few of the more extraordinary traffic travesties from this storm, which serve as our top traffic stories of the week.

- The earlier Metro Atlanta snow and ice accumulation took place in the northwestern suburbs. Officials in Bartow, Cherokee, and Cobb Counties began dispatching crashes left and right around 10:30 a.m. Tuesday. By noon, Cobb already told motorists they would only respond to injury crashes, because of the large volume of single-vehicle spinouts and ditch landings. Cherokee authorities had over a dozen crashes on I-575 alone. Dispatchers in each county told me they had too many crashes to even bother listing them. This became the chorus of most counties as the day wore on, so we stopped keeping track of wecks.

- The worst interstate in the storm was I-285, which held drivers for over a day on the southwest side. Motorists between I-20 and I-85 near the Airport sat on a road virtually shut down most of a 24-hour period between Tuesday and Wednesday night. Nearby Hwy. 166 became a sheet of ice and motorists sat in place there for a similar amount of time. There were jackknifed tractor trailers up and down both I-285 and Hwy. 166 in this area. The most desperate calls we received were from people stuck on I-285, as they waited not just the longest to get moving, but also the longest to receive any kind of help or relief.

- I-75/85 in both directions was awful near Hwy. 166, not only because of Hwy. 166 itself, but because there were so many stuck trucks on the Downtown Connector there. Only one lane or so was open to zigzag through each direction for most of Tuesday night and Wednesday. People spent the night here, too.

- With the rush of everyone to get home in full effect, some of the worst surface street jams we heard of were in Downtown/Midtown, Buckhead, Sandy Springs, and Dunwoody. Not only were people moving inches in hours, the traffic just getting out of parking decks was hours-long. By this point, we were recommending people just spend the night at work. Cars got stuck at the busy River bridge at Johnson Ferry Rd. and Riverside Dr. WSB's Steve Winslow took 10.5 hours to drive in to work at our Traffic Center - his drive was via Hwy. 41 and I-75, from Kennesaw to Midtown. WSB's Kim McCarthy said that her drive just from Sandy Springs to WSB was one of the worst and scariest of her life. Our Chris Schiavone took hours to drive from Woodstock and Roswell to WSB. And we heard countless other accounts of day-plus commutes from, say, Sandy Springs to Kennesaw. But both businesses and residences opened their doors and housed these cold, tired people. Good Samaritans brought food and supplies to those they could. Hospitality was one of the few pluses in this storm.

- The icy I-75 hill near W. Paces Ferry was all or mostly blocked for about a day. Truck after truck after car kept getting stuck and other cars just had to tiptoe through. The same happened on I-75 in both directions near the South and North 120 Loops. Dozens got stuck on the I-75/nb ramp to Cumberland Blvd. alone - they couldn't make the hill and just abandoned their vehicles. GSP and the National Guard used four-wheelers to help people not only recover abandoned vehicles from the interstates, but also give them some gas and battery charge. The government's response in the aftermath of the storm was much better than before and during.

- I-285 on the northside was especially bad. The gridlock, mostly caused by difficulty in crossing the Chattahoochee River bridge and the constant blockages in the I-285/I-75 Cobb Cloverleaf stranded people for hours and hours. The gridlock and ice set in simultaneously, meaning treatment of the roads was near impossible until after traffic cleared, which took forever, because the temperatures didn't even crack freezing until Wednesday afternoon and then still plunged afterwards.

- DeKalb County was not the focal point of the storm, but Hwy. 78 took a beating - this biggest punch being the 20 or so-car wreck Hwy. 78/eb near Stone Mountain Park that essentially blocked the Stone Mountain Freeway from Tuesday night to Wednesday afternoon. The shade on Hwy. 78 made the Tucker-Stone Mountain thaw a long process.

- The last interstates to return to normal were I-20 on the west side and I-75 between Lake Allatoona and Kennesaw. Part of the reason for this is because, like Hwy. 78, there are several areas on those roads that stay shaded and didn't thaw well. The high volume of big rigs that take these routes meant these big trucks had to baby there way through the barely melted and treated lanes. And the right lanes along these routes, the lanes generally covered the most in shade, stayed impassable until Thursday. The Thursday gridlock on I-75/sb stretched from Allatoona to Acworth (and there was an overturned big rig on I-75/nb at Red Top Mountain Rd. Thursday afternoon that blocked most of the freeway and caused delays) and I-20/eb was a cold mess near Hwy. 92, Lee Rd., and Hwy. 6. Earlier in the storm, cars got stuck on I-20 trying to climb Six Flags Hill, but as the Wednesday thaw progressed, that situation cleared up faster than the other parts of I-20. Surface streets in this corridor were particularly bad: Hwy. 6/Thornton Rd./Camp Creek Pkwy. in Douglas and Fulton was littered with abandoned cars and gridlocked between the River and Lithia Springs. Other south Fulton main highways (Camp Creek closer to the Airport, Fulton Industrial Blvd., Hwy. 154, Hwy. 166 outside I-285, and Hwy. 92) stayed jammed through Wednesday and into Thursday as well. The thaw was also slow in Cherokee County, as officials there complained of heavy icing even into Thursday. The DOT could have done a better job treating roads post-snow storm in these areas, for sure.

- This last development from the storm is completely mind-blowing. As the gridlock continued on Roswell Rd./Hwy. 9 in Sandy Springs Tuesday night, some people thought that turning that road into a one-way, wrong-way, ice train from hell would be a wonderful idea. The WSB Traffic Center received multiple reports that impatient motorists decided to skirt the northbound backups and drive in the southbound lanes - on ice - with traffic heading toward them. There were also instances of this reported on Hwy. 92 in Cherokee Co. and some other roads. No words describe how utterly dangerous and ignorant these things are, but this situation perfectly shows how some responsibility of this entire debacle lies on our shoulders and not just the government’s.

There were plenty more instances of gridlock, despair, and insanity on Atlanta's roads. Tell us your stories in the comments section below. To perfectly sum up the intensity and insanity of Atlanta's SnowJam '14, here is a detailed blog post on one WSB listener's intense drive home and their lessons in preparedness. And, finally, a YouTube video of the Tuesday evening-Wednesday morning drive, documented by another WSB listener. (Warning: there is strong language).

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