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Lessons from Atlanta

Categories: General, Natural Disasters, Preparedness, Response

photo of television screen showing news coverage of Atlanta snowstormWhat many would call a “dusting,” we Atlantans would call a “snowpocalypse” as evidence by this week’s 2 inches of snow which crippled the city, causing severe gridlock across the metro area, stranding school children and commuters who were forced to abandon cars on the highway. The mayor of Atlanta and Governor Deal have been making the media circuit, trying to explain what happened to cause the city to grind to a halt, but regardless of who’s fault it was, it’s time to take a look at the situation and see what we can learn from a preparedness perspective. Here are our top 5 lessons learned, that don’t just apply to folks in the Deep South, but to everyone who might be caught in an emergency situation.

  1. You can always count on…yourself. We’d like to be able to tell you that someone from your local, state, or federal government will always be available 24/7 to help everyone during an emergency, but that’s just not realistic. First responders are there to help the people in the most need, it’s important that everyone else be self-sufficient until emergency response crews have time to get the situation under control. That means you need to be prepared for the worst, with supplies, plans, and knowledge to make sure you can care for yourself and your family until the situation returns to normal.
  2. Keep emergency supplies in your car. So much of our lives revolve around our vehicles. For most of us that’s how we get to and from work everyday, shuttle our kids, and buy groceries. And in places like Atlanta many of us have long commutes, during which time anything could happen. You have emergency supplies in your house, why not in your car? Many motorists were stranded on the highways for 10 hours or more. You need to make sure you have a blanket, water, food, and other emergency supplies stored away in your trunk just in case.
  3. Make a family emergency plan. If you can’t pick up your kids who will? Many parents were stranded on the interstate and unable to get to their children’s schools. Sit down with your family and go over what you would do in different emergency situations. Is there a neighbor or relative in the area that can help out if you aren’t able to get to your kids. Let them know you’d like to include them in your plan. Make sure you also come up with a communication plan, that includes giving everyone a list of important phone numbers, not just to save in your cellphone but to keep in your wallet or kids’ backpack. Many commuters’ cell phones died while they were sitting on the roadways for hours. If all your important phone numbers are saved to your device and it died, would you be able to remember your neighbor’s number to ask them to check in on the kids when a Good Samaritan loans you their phone?  
  4. icy streetKeep your gas tanks full. This is important to remember in other emergencies like hurricanes, when people are trying to evacuate.  If there’s a chance you’re going to need your car, or your ability to get gas is going to be restricted (due to road closures or shortages), make sure you fill up your tank as soon as you hear the first warning. Many of the motorists trying to get home this week ran out of gas, worsening the clogged roads and delaying first responders from getting to people who really needed their help.  
  5. Listen to warnings. The City of Atlanta and the surrounding metro area was under a winter storm warning within 12 hours of the first flakes, but residents and area leaders were slow to listen, most people didn’t start taking action until the snow began to fall, which lead to a mass exodus of the city. While no one likes to “cry wolf” in situations like these, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Learn the difference between a watch and a warning, and start taking action as soon as you hear the inclement forecast.

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  1. January 30, 2014 at 11:23 pm ET  -   Fred

    I had the misfortune of entering Atlanta on I-75 on Tuesday afternoon heading back to Canada from Florida.

    After spending 5 hours crawling along, I finally had seen enough and took the nearest exit (around mid-town), realizing that the road was unnavigable and I didn’t want to spend the night in my car on a highway in Atlanta, so I pulled off and was fortunate to actually get a bed to sleep in.

    It became obvious early on that the city/state was not only not equipped to handle what would be seen as a non-event by most major cities north of the 35th latitude, but was in fact paralyzed by it. It was eye-opening to say the least.

    From cars not having tires to gain any traction on snow & sliding sideways, blocking ramps, etc., to drivers not having the know-how to drive in these conditions (over-correcting when sliding, etc.) to a complete failure to pre-treat major interstate roads before & during the storm (despite claims by government officials to the contrary), it was a dangerous situation.

    In hindsight, thankfully from my warm living room in Canada, it seems evident, government officials’ action plan consisted mainly of waiting for mother nature to do their work for them.

    In fact, it seems that IF there was a contingency plan in place, it failed miserably.

    It was clear there weren’t enough state contractors equipped to (pre-)treat the major interstates with sand/salt.

    That being the case, the interstates should have been closed as soon as it became evident that the gridlock was getting worse, not better (early afternoon)
    yet as late as 7:30 pm, I still saw cars regrettably entering the highway from on-ramps.

    Declaring a state of emergency to activate & employ state national guard may have been necessary, but I didn’t see any tangible results.

    Perhaps the most surprising thing I heard during my unexpected stay was that a similar storm occurred only 3 years earlier with similar results…a crippling of a large city.

    If you aren’t going to adequately address such a contingency, then I suggest ordering all businesses, governments & schools closed when the forecast calls for possible snow. And if you are too embarrassed to preemptively shut down a major US city simply on a forecast that may not turn out, then hold your government officials to account to at least have adequate contingency plans (contractors to salt/sand, etc.) in place.

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  2. January 31, 2014 at 1:11 pm ET  -   Opal Evans

    Have we not learned from Katrina, Moore, OK, Sandy, and other emergencies and disasters that the time has long since past when municipalities should focus their local emergency management plans around the Whole Community Approach initiative for emergency preparedness. This initiative has been promoted by FEMA since 2011, and we still don’t get it. Individual and community preparedness training should be a critical component of emergency management – beyond basic CERT training. It requires a collective approach between governments, individual households, neighborhood associations, schools, faith-based and VOAD organizations, public health organizations training and working concertedly to prepare, prevent, mitigate, and recover when emergencies/disasters occur. This means that Citizen Corps must consider and seek to include and engage everyone in local emergency management planning processes.

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  3. February 1, 2014 at 3:45 pm ET  -   barbarakay1

    Except that it is important to remember that water freezes, so keeping it in the trunk during the winter months (depending on where one lives) may not be particularly helpful. don’t understand tags; feel free to add them if they are helpful.

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  4. February 2, 2014 at 5:52 pm ET  -   Terry L. Davis

    Atlanta should be a wake-up call for what will happen in many American
    cities if even basic preparedness and attention to current data is ignored. Cities (and nations) that underestimate nature’s power to disrupt man-made systems do so at their peril. This is true not only for inclement weather but also infrastructure disruptions. If the United States wishes its infrastructure to decline to 2nd and 3rd world status through benign neglect, that is its right. We are a 21st century country with a 1960s power grid and a late 50s rail system. Even if it means more debt, if we do not, at a minimum, shore up our electrical grid and medical services to deal with disruptions (natural or otherwise), this country is literally asking for trouble.

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  5. February 3, 2014 at 1:30 pm ET  -   Pam Masters

    I think citizens should be encouraged to make decisions for themselves and their children. If they have been hearing the warnings about a storm coming, they should feel empowered to decide to take the day off from work and keep their kids home from school. Yes, I realize some families are not able to do this. But when the safety of your family is in question, I’d rather err on the side of caution than risk being stuck somewhere – either on a highway or at a school.

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