Caught off guard: After paralyzing snow, Atlanta mayor and Ga. gov play delicate blame game

  • Article by: JAY REEVES , Associated Press
  • Updated: January 30, 2014 - 11:07 PM

When the snow started falling Tuesday and cars lined up on the highways, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed were at an awards luncheon, smiling and back-slapping each other as the Republican governor introduced the Democratic mayor, who was named a local magazine's "Georgian of the Year."

Just 40 minutes earlier, the mayor declared via Twitter: "Atlanta, we are ready for the snow."

Within hours, the metropolitan area was in gridlock with tens of thousands of people, including some children on school buses, stranded on icy, wreck-strewn roads. Two days later, the ice was thawing, the children were home and abandoned vehicles were being reclaimed, yet Deal and Reed have scrambled to explain how it all happened after the National Weather Service — despite the governor's claims to the contrary — clearly warned of a dangerous scenario.

Both men have played the blame game delicately, perhaps knowing political futures are sometimes made or squashed by storm preparations and response, and that the city that has a long and painful past of being ill-prepared for nasty winter weather.

Reed, who recently began his second term, holds ambition for a statewide run, possibly for governor. Deal is running for re-election this year, and Democrats believe he is vulnerable.

On Thursday, the governor offered his clearest apology yet. He acknowledged he was sleeping in wee hours of Tuesday morning when the National Weather Service upgraded its warning for the entire metro area, and he said his administration didn't prepare well enough.

"Certainly things could have been done earlier," he said, pledging a full review of the state's emergency planning. "We will be more aggressive. We will take those weather warnings more seriously."

Since the storm, Deal and Reed have mostly alternated between qualified apologies and defensive explanations about what they do and don't control, each of them carefully avoiding explicitly pointing the finger at the other, a reflection of their odd-couple political alliance on projects like a new downtown stadium and deepening a key port in Savannah.

The governor offered perhaps the most bald-faced excuse, at one point referring to "an unexpected winter storm" and saying that "national forecasters" were wrong. The mayor has said it was a mistake for schools, business and government to close around the same time Tuesday, forcing several million people into a frenzied commute around the region before salt-and-sand crews had treated roadways. Once people were stuck, they became nearly impossible to treat or plow.

Reed has also noted the city was not directly responsible for the interstates, and many of the wrecks and scenes of gridlock on national television were outside the city altogether. Both men insisted they don't "control" the decisions over whether to cancel school.

Deal explained the preparations were based on earlier National Weather Service forecasts that predicted the worst of the storm passing between the metro area and Macon, in the center of the state.

Yet a review of the National Weather Service advisories showed the agency published a storm watch for part of Georgia on Sunday. By daybreak Monday, the watch extended into metro Atlanta.

"Snow covered roads could make travel difficult," forecasters wrote. "If you can change your travel ... do so before the event starts. Now is the time to plan... Do not wait for the warning!"

The watch was upgraded Monday afternoon to a warning for south metro Atlanta, and the overnight forecast — released at 3:38 a.m. Tuesday — extended that warning to the entire metro area, beginning at 9 a.m.

Yet it appeared government officials didn't fully grasp the scope of the impending weather. Deal's chief of staff, Chris Riley, sent an email Monday around 3 p.m. that suggested some unease from the governor's office. It sought more information from Charley English, the chief of the state emergency management office.

"Everyone keeps trying to tell me how bad the weather is going to be but I keep saying if the weather was going to be bad, Charley would have called and he hasn't called me," Riley wrote, according to records obtained by The Associated Press using Georgia's open records laws. English offered to call minutes later.

Deal mentioned English directly when discussing the mistakes Thursday, and the chief said he had "made a terrible mistake and put the governor in an awful position."

Whatever the fallout for Deal and Reed, they have plenty of examples of politicians whose careers met a turning point due to a disaster. President George W. Bush had sagging approval ratings before voters resoundingly approved of his work in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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  • Lila Gunter waits next to a Georgia National Guard vehicle before they take her to pick up her car after it was towed in the winter storm that swept across the state Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, in Atlanta.

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