In late January 2014, just under three inches of snow—and, more specifically, the ice that followed—crippled metro Atlanta, shutting down the region’s economy and forcing people to sleep in stranded cars, stores, and community centers. What if history repeats itself?
What was the total damage from the so-called Snowpocalypse?
Two deaths in Georgia were attributed to the storm, and police reported more than 800 traffic accidents during the multiday shutdown. For City Hall, the cost of overtime, rental equipment, and supplies totaled $12.5 million. The PR hit from nightly newscasts leading with aerial shots of a winter wasteland and jabs from Saturday Night Live? Priceless.
How have Atlanta and the state prepared?
After 2014’s storm, government officials adopted a mantra of “better safe than embarrassed.” The Georgia Department of Transportation today has roughly 55,000 tons of salt on standby throughout the state, more than double the amount on hand in 2014. Nearly 2,000 employees stand ready to operate 450 dump trucks and pickups to move snow and spread brine on the nearly 50,000 miles of roads and interstates. Josh Rowan, the city’s transportation commissioner, says Atlanta has 6,000 tons of salt and brine solution to spread first on major arterial roads and routes to hospitals—well before temperatures drop below freezing and snow starts falling. Those materials and various pieces of equipment are on standby at the city’s North Avenue facility near Grove Park.
Officials in 2014 weren’t just criticized for not having enough salt.
As former Atlanta editor Rebecca Burns noted after the storm, the balkanized nature of the metro region—more than five counties and roughly 50 cities, all with their own emergency plans and priorities—contributed to the delayed and dysfunctional response. Following the 2014 storm, then Governor Nathan Deal created a task force that drafted emergency plans for all extreme-weather events, including delegation of responsibilities among different local governments and agencies, when employees should be sent home, and when schools should close. The plans are reviewed and updated after every weather event, says Natalie Dale, GDOT’s communications director. Before the pandemic, Rowan says, the city held regular “dry-run” simulations of winter storms and has revised plans so crews can safely social distance while clearing roads or fallen utility poles.
Say we get another arctic blast—do we have everything we need?
Rowan’s confident the city is well prepared and says it has relationships with suppliers and equipment-rental companies if salt piles run low or its fleet needs backup. And once the threat of a Snowpocalypse subsides, Rowan and other officials can focus on tornado and hurricane season. “It’s not like you get through winter and you’re done worrying about storms,” Rowan says. “You’re just finished worrying about a certain type of storm.”
Gallons of brine on reserve
58: number of GDOT’s remote stations around the state that gauge weather and road conditions
18: number of GDOT teams tasked with spraying major interstates during winter storm events, stopping only to refill
This article appears in our February 2021 issue.