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Southern Gamble with Snow Storm didn't pay out.

Last week’s Ice storm that crippled Atlanta and cities throughout the southern United States was embarrassing, to say the least. I live in New England and yes, the accuracy of snow storms are hard to predict, but to be honest, I’d rather the weather guy overshoot and everyone over prepares than to completely miss the mark. A few weeks ago I drove to work in flurries, which was no big deal. We were getting a dusting that day anyway. An hour later, it was clear we were getting more than a dusting and alerts went out all through Nashua to get off the roads and stay home until the salt trucks and plows could get out. Roads were bad, since it had recently rained and washed away the salt, and it accumulated quickly, leading to dozens of accidents and traffic jams throughout the city. Thankfully it was a weekend and the city didn’t have to deal with rush hour and getting school busses out, but it wouldn’t have been the first time.

In the winter of 1997 a few days before Christmas, a small winter event turned into a nightmare in our area. I was in 8th grade and it was the last day of school before break. We watched the snow pile high very quickly without any word of an early dismissal. What was supposed to be a couple of inches turned into a couple of feet fast. In an effort to get younger kids home first, the city released the high school early (since many students drove anyway) and the elementary schools early but kept the junior high on time. Had it only been a half hour delay, it wouldn’t have been that bad, an hour might have been understandable. However, my bus was the last to leave the school at 5:30pm and it was another hour before it got to my neighborhood. It was so dark and snowy our bus driver wound up taking several riders straight to their homes and in another instance couldn’t get up a hill to drop off other students. She had to drive the bus for nearly 6 hours that day and still get home afterwards. That same day another bus slid and got stuck in a snowbank in our front yard.

So I get it, these things happen and can be unpredictable. In the northeast, it happens all the time, and we’re generally prepared. In the south though, it’s a completely different story. I lived in Baton Rouge for 3 years; I saw how they react to snow. One of my roommates asked me if you sink into it when walking. I had to explain it depended on if it was a wet snow or a dry snow or if it was covered in ice and it only lead to further questions. It snowed while I was there in 2008 and I didn’t go into work, even though I could walk to my building. Something about walking just feet away from someone who had never driven in snow before just wasn’t appealing. In terms of preparedness though, there’s no salt, no plows, no snow tires, and no way to practice driving in the snow.

Even if Atlanta and other cities didn’t think it would be that bad, this is only an event they deal with every couple of years. For a city in the North to completely overreact it would be a waste of taxpayer money and embarrassing. But for communities that don’t have the means to even prepare people for how to handle even the slightest winter conditions and can’t pretreat the roads with salt or maintain the same clearing rate with plows that northern can, there was no excuse for so many people to be left helpless. Atlanta’s sprawl is already well known for causing traffic problems every day and let’s face it, the airport isn’t the most reliable place in the world either. While Atlanta isn’t the only place in the region that faced major issues, the images of abandoned cars and the backed up traffic doesn’t help to take the attention off of the city.

The thing is, the storm wasn’t a surprise. It didn’t just spring up out of the gulf and take the region by surprise within 12 hours. People knew for days that this storm was about to hit. While they may not have the resources on hand, communities which frequently deal with winter weather are only 12-24 hours away, why not reach out to them to borrow plow drivers and salt if it’s needed? Many predictions in the north apparently had the storm tracking further north than other meteorologists had predicted. Well before the storm started, I saw posts from friends ranging from Texas to New Orleans to North Carolina regarding the storm. It just seems that with the opportunity to play it safe by closing schools, and keeping people home, it would have saved a lot of headache for a lot of people.

Politicians appear that they are more concerned with saving face and party lines than with the interests of the public that they represent. We saw this following Hurricane Katrina with the democratic Governor Blanco going toe to toe with a republican Mayor Nagin and the White house with a lot of finger pointing and blame games. Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia said “We don’t want to be accused of crying wolf.” Deal had been told the storm would pass south of the city and had they been over prepared and shut down the major city, money would have been lost and people would have complained.

Well guess what, that still happened. I don’t think anyone stranded in their car or that left their car on the side of the road was 100% happy with that situation. With six states declaring emergencies, including parts of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina, I’m not sure how Governor Deal thought Atlanta and parts of Georgia would just be immune to the winter weather. While he may not be the only official to have not taken appropriate steps, he’s facing the most backlash because of the massive traffic pile up. Even if most of the back up occurred on state roads and not in Atlanta proper, why isn’t there coordination with the mayors and officials of the surrounding communities?! You can’t 100% accurately predict the weather, but you can’t blame this mess on the weather alone, there is a lot of human element and human mistakes that were made and just a general lack of preparedness.

There were a lot of positive aspects and a lot of good Samaritans and people helping others. Teachers went above and beyond the call of duty to attend to children stuck at school overnight and many strangers offered help to others by bringing food and supplies to those stuck in cars and even offering places to stay.

It’s supposed to snow a lot in Nashua tonight into tomorrow with the latest numbers around 10-12 heavy inches. There’s already been a snow emergency declared in the State and in the City. The beauty of it is that if it’s not so bad, you can cancel it and people can go on with their day. But we’ve known this snow was coming for a couple of days and with the weather event starting and most likely ending within the next 24 hours, preventative steps are already being taken. We haven’t had a major rain event since the last snow fall so hopefully a lot of the salt will keep the roads clear a little longer. People are being asked to stay off the roads and not go anywhere until conditions are better during the day tomorrow.

You can always look back and say, well I guess we overreacted. The problem with that though is the pattern it creates. Taking a look at storms recently, this is one of the problems that left people in New York and New Jersey so ill prepared for Hurricane Sandy and people in the Gulf ill prepared for Hurricane Katrina. In 2011, the New York and New Jersey areas were warned about the severity of Hurricane Irene, which turned out to be a bust in that area, though it still caused extensive damage throughout Vermont and northern New Hampshire. So when faced with warnings about the impending Hurricane Sandy, many shrugged it off and were taken surprise by the force of the storm. Those threatened by Hurricane Katrina reacted with, “They said that about Camille and Betsy, we’ll be fine.” So while there is an impact of crying wolf one too many times, some of the burden has to rest on the people too. Emergency declarations and serious storm conditions should be taken seriously and not just brushed aside and emergency supplies and preparedness kits should be on hand. With climate change and global warming, we aren’t necessarily seeing increase in frequency, rather an increase in severity. Small tropical systems are becoming powerful named hurricanes and winter dustings can turn on you to create a small nor’easter on a moment’s notice. Winter conditions in the south are infrequent and the warnings could have been taken more seriously, even if the impacts weren’t that great.

And apparently we name winter storms now? I was unsure of when this started to happen and it apparently has been an effort by the weather channel for the last few years. Using social media it makes it easier to track a storm and to refer to it in the future. These names do differ from the lists used to name hurricanes.

In the north, we have snow days, but the rumor is that many school districts in the south kept children long enough to make a “full day” so the day wouldn’t have to be made up at the end of the year or some other time. I’m sorry, but is safety worth avoiding an extra day of school some other time? Better yet, are the teachers who stayed over with children at schools they had to sleep at even getting compensated for that work? Do the bus drivers get overtime for driving long over their normal hours? The financial impacts of not closing have to be greater than the risk of closing too early. I just don’t seen how anyone could have financially benefitted from this situation at all. We’ve become a society that assesses the immediate bottom line to determine risk without thinking about a long term picture or safety. In an effort to save money at the end of the year, they still had to maintain a higher level of operations for a prolonged period of time, and ultimately probably didn’t save a dime. I’m sure many of those kids would have been happier at home for the night with an extra day tagged on somewhere else than spending the night sleeping on gym mats on the floor.

The overall lesson here is not only that sometimes the risk of looking foolish is worth it for politicians, but that people need to yield to warnings too. Ultimately I think safety had to be a bigger concern than looking like they “cried wolf” because so many communities came away looking really ill-prepared. No one is going to get the response to an extreme weather situation 100% right, but I can guarantee you the south got this one 100% wrong.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go buy milk and bread.

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