Who’s to blame for ice jam mess?
You may not like my take on last week’s winter storm debacle.
On Tuesday afternoon, the winter storm stranded drivers in and around Atlanta for untold hours in gridlocked traffic as they tried to rush home, marooning many in their cars overnight with countless kids unexpectedly stuck in schools overnight because the roads were impossibly clogged.
Even in quiet little Peachtree City, my daughter’s 10-minute drive home from McIntosh High School took her nearly two hours.
The immediate televised search for the guilty reminded me of watching news reports the morning after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005 and wondering how long the media would take to point the finger of blame at President George W. Bush. He was blamed in less than two hours for a monumental natural disaster and the flooding of a city brilliantly built below sea level.
Last week the blame targets were Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Governor Nathan Deal, and Charley English, director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. Mayor Reed is sensitized to criticism by his national ambitions, I believe, and his dodging, deflecting and explaining boundaries and authority limits did little to satisfy reporters with hours of TV to fill and an angry viewing public expecting answers, and heads.
Gov. Deal, clearly worried about his re-election bid, danced, equivocated and then apologized — like a ninny, if you ask me, because he could have manned up to say, “When everybody and their dog hits the road from businesses, schools and government offices and every other place at the same time, the system is going to lock up. That’s life!”
One of Deal’s opponents in the race for governor, Dalton Mayor David Pennington, took the political gift of the situation to say Deal failed miserably, which makes Pennington an idiot in my book for implying the governor could have prevented the ordeal.
Charley English seems to be in real trouble, especially since GEMA offices were dark and deserted at the height of the mess Tuesday afternoon. A charitable view would suggest nobody knew there would be a crisis until gridlock happened, and then it was too late. Maybe English and his staff should have been on top of the situation just in case, but I confess I don’t know enough about GEMA to judge.
I am fairly certain, though, there were not very many among the angry drivers who blamed themselves.
The national media got it wrong last week, too, portraying Atlanta as too incompetent to handle a mere two inches of snow. As you and I know, the snow wasn’t so bad, but the sub-freezing temperature turning roads to ice was half of the problem.
For the other half, we turn to comic strips of the past, wherein that great philosopher, Pogo, had occasion to declare, “We have met the enemy, and he is us!”
My guess is the disillusioned commuters angrily asking why schools did not close on Tuesday might be the same ones who demanded to know why schools did close a week prior when all that resulted was cold temperatures, and they surely are the same ones who decided to drive to work in Atlanta despite the winter storm forecast that foretold the possibility of getting stuck in miserable traffic.
Those demanding to know why sand and salt trucks didn’t do more to make roads passable may not know DOT trucks did in fact do some advance spreading, but by the time everyone and their dog tried to drive home early Tuesday afternoon at the same time, the roads locked up tighter than Dick’s hatband and trucks that can’t move can’t spread.
It wouldn’t have mattered if Atlanta had 10,000 trucks and mountains of salt and sand if they can’t move, but we do like to blame someone when things go wrong.
You and I should realize not every problem can be solved; some must be endured. Anyone who reflects for a moment should realize that our civilized commuting life works only because we squeeze into a pattern of traffic balance that is tested every working day at rush hour when too many drivers need to move at the same time. When unusual circumstances push even more concentrated traffic on the roads, the system breaks down quickly.
We should be prepared to fend for ourselves.
If you don’t know how to drive on ice and suddenly find yourself spun around and stuck off the road, facing the same traffic you were part of a moment ago, who is going to pull you out?
Every car or truck inching past is just as anxious as you to make it home, unwilling to stop for you or the other thousand unlucky stuck drivers they pass. How is your AAA tow truck going to reach you even if they didn’t have 500 calls ahead of yours?
If you have kids in the car and wonder how long your gas tank will keep the heater going, whose job is it to keep the gas tank full and blankets in the car just in case in the winter?
While stuck and waiting for a miracle, you will have plenty of time to curse the mayor or governor, or, heaven forbid, to blame yourself for not heeding the forecast and staying home safe.
If the forecast of a strong winter storm didn’t prompt you to fill up with gas, whose fault is it when your engine dies after the last drop of fuel in gridlocked traffic?
Whose fault if your gas needle bangs on empty when the gas stations are closed, their tanks drained dry by unprecedented demand?
Even my 16-year-old driver knows when unusual circumstances put too many drivers on the road, it is her responsibility to not let her gas tank fall below half full. That’s on every driver, no excuses.
Never mind self-reliance, though. Generations of reporters and TV news viewers have been conditioned to believe our protected and comfortable lifestyle is a birthright, and when things go wrong our government has a duty to take care of us.
And so, indignant reporters demanded answers. Mayor Reed and Gov. Deal took the bait and promised to tighten the controls to make sure this does not happen again, thereby perpetuating the modern American imperative of improving things until they collapse of their own weight.
Now officials will press the alarm button too early because that’s what it takes in America to avoid blame, like the TSA’s response in 2002 to Richard Reid, aka the “shoe bomber,” in requiring every airline passenger since then to remove their shoes, accomplishing next to nothing to promote safety but rendering TSA blameless for exploding shoes even while they turn a blind eye to Middle Eastern male passengers lest they be accused of profiling.
I doubt Atlanta’s future hair trigger to close schools when snow is forecast will be a good thing. I would rather have officials use their best judgment whether closure makes sense rather than jump to closure to avoid criticism. I hope that illness doesn’t spread to Fayette County.
What would I do if I were king? Two things.
First, a little planning might help if officials can keep it simple and stop themselves from getting carried away. They could agree how to centralize crisis decision-making and coordination among agencies. The school system could plan how to handle kids stuck at school in emergencies, including parent communication. Officials could plan a system of declared staggered departure for all workers and schools when weather calls for dashing home, but good luck with honor system compliance.
Second, I’d encourage everyone to grow up and realize government’s job is not to take care of us; that’s our job.
Winter happens every dang year, bringing the risk of bad storms and horrible traffic. It’s up to you and me to think ahead, up to you and me to stay home when we don’t want to risk being trapped in awful traffic.
Whatever government does or does not do, some things are simply up to you and me.
[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]