We in metro Atlanta have had a frustrating week since Tuesday with SnowJam 2014, which was in many ways a repeat of SnowJam 1982 and a dozen other fun times. As soon as I returned to my office on Friday, the phone started ringing with people who had been injured when hit by tractor trailers on ice covered interstates. #snowjam2014 #snowcalypse2014
Aside from such unnecessary tractor trailer crashes, reactions varied substantially according to how each individual was affected and where they are from.
My northern friends ridicule how Southern cities deal with two inches of snow. They may overlook that it is much easier to drive on snow that stays frozen than on snow that has melted and then refrozen as a sheet of ice. They also overlook that it makes no sense to spend a billion dollars on snow removal equipment that would be used about two days every three years.
They also forget how rare these events are in the south. A friend in Alabama quipped that “waking up in Birmingham to snow is like waking up in New Hampshire to quicksand. It just doesn’t happen very often.” Yet another Alabama friend posted, “OK, Northerners, stop criticizing how we handle snow and ice. It’s kind of rare here. Like winning a BCS Championship up there.”
Another divergence in reaction is urban vs. rural. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published this reaction from a respected businessman in Gainesville:
Sick of the whining. The “men” in Atlanta need to drink less cosmotinis and forget about ever getting another pedicure. Be a man like the guy who hiked 6 miles through the snow and ice to be with his daughter. Spend more time in nature and less time bitching about it. If more people had not panicked and bolted out of the office at noon we would not have gridlocked the highways and the DOT could have treated them. I left my office in Gainesville at 7:15pm. Checked traffic reports. Found a good route home and traveled 50 miles in 1.5 hours.
Having grown up in the country, I deeply understand that sentiment. The song “Country Boys Will Survive” always struck a chord deep in my soul. But it’s not just country folks. Atlantans hiked miles in the snow and ice this week. I know a young woman who hiked two miles home from the point where she was forced to leave her car. Her boyfriend walked and ran seven miles in the snow without warm coat.
But after in 30 plus years in Atlanta, I recognize the difference context can make in how one can respond in these situations.
The quip about Atlanta “men” getting cosmotinis and pedicures would play very well in some places. Maybe I don’t run in a sophisticated crowd but I am not sure that in three decades in Atlanta I have even known a man who drank a cosmotini (had to look that one up) or got a pedicure. At least none that admitted to it.
My early frame of reference as a “country boy” includes an ice storm that hit when I was in third grade at Menlo in Chattooga County, Georgia. My dad was the principal of a 12 grade school at Menlo and my mother taught fifth grade. We lived across the state line at Mentone, Alabama, population then about 300, on top of Lookout Mountain. When an ice storm hit in the middle of the school day on March 1st, we waited for all the school buses to run and were the last to leave the school. I recall riding in the back seat as my dad drove up an ice covered mountain road in low gear to just below the crest of the mountain at Cloudland. When we got stuck in a curve near the crest of the mountain, a bunch of high school boys helped push us up the rest of the way. I don’t recall when dad put chains on the tires, but it may have been after that incident.
We were out of school for two weeks and without power at our home for a month. Living in the country, we had propane space heaters, cooked in front of the heaters on an homemade camping oven made from an oil can, hauled water from a natural spring in the woods, used old kerosene lanterns for light and ate a lot of canned vegetable that were raised in our garden the previous summer. We hiked several miles through a winter wonderland to country store to buy the few provisions we did not have in the pantry at home. Night after night I went to sleep to the sound of pine trees breaking and falling under the weight of the ice. We spent the next two years cutting, gathering and burning the fallen trees.
But a lot of the survival skills that served us well in a community of 300 souls over a hundred miles out in the country don’t completely transfer to the beehive life in the ninth largest metropolitan area in the U.S. with something like 5.4 million people.
– Driving on ice. If I am on a road are covered with ice with no one in my way, I can drive in low gear at slow speed for hours with full control and no problems. Last year, I drove over a high mountain pass in the Cascades through a snow storm in a rental car with regular tires. There were flashing signs warning that tire chains or snow tires were required but this country boy did just fine.
Last Tuesday, I spent nearly 11 hours on icy roads, mostly in gridlock. When I finally managed to get off the expressway and work through a circuitous route of less traveled surface streets, I did fine until I got to points where somebody had stopped and was unable to get going again. Three times, I was blocked by people who had naively stopped for a red light facing uphill on a slope, getting stuck and forcing everyone behind them to stop and get stuck. It took a while to get around them. At another point, southbound cars were stopped blocking both southbound and northbound lanes. I joined with a bunch of guys pushing off cars until we could clear both lanes.
The bottom line is that no matter how self-sufficient you are, if a million other people are also dealing with ice on the roads, it will interrupt the normal dance of flowing traffic, it will degenerate into chaos, there will be gridlock and you will be stuck in it. Even if you are Survivorman with in a 4×4 with chains over snow tires, if the road is blocked by 100,000 other vehicles spinning wheels on ice, you aren’t going anywhere for a while.
– “Panic and bolt out of office at noon.” When Tuesday’s storm hit, I was taking depositions on a truck crash wrongful death case in Macon. As I was leaving there, I did notice some of those good middle Georgia folks leaving their offices. There was no panic but several needed to leave to pick up their kids.
Clearly our uncoordinated swarm of independent decisions when the storm hit did not work out very well. There is an old Southern expression about somebody being “independent as a hog on ice.” That expression refers to one who is technically free but to get any traction on the ice and thus almost certain to be recaptured and returned to his pen, so that technical freedom means nothing. Hundreds of thousands of Atlantans making free but uncoordinated decisions on when to head home in a winter storm has much the same effect.
From what I have heard, a very large percentage of people “bolting” from their offices at noon in Atlanta did so because they had gotten word that their children’s schools were closing early. Parents are like that. They want to take care of their kids. As it turns out, thousands of school kids had epic slumber parties at their schools because neither school buses nor parents could get them home.
If you are in a town of 25,000 people, the potential for gridlock is far less than in a metro area of 5.4 million. Folks who checked the grim traffic reports and left their offices in Atlanta at 5:30 on Tuesday, like the gentleman in Gainesville, were in no less gridlock than those who left at noon, and probably spent the night in their cars or on the floor at a supermarket. They might as well have slept at their offices as did some of the loyal staffers at the State Bar of Georgia.
An inescapable truth is that need for emergency planning and coordination is much greater in urban areas than rural areas. We can try to plan less traveled routes from work to home but if even one vehicle blocks your ingenious route, you’re toast.
– Personal emergency planning. Notwithstanding the need for coordination in the urban beehive, we all have responsibility for ourselves. My rural raising, combined with years of Scout leader training, has taught me to be prepared. It’s all in line with the theme that “country boys (and girls) will survive.
Knowing that a winter storm was likely, I took a suitcase when I drove to Macon on Tuesday morning, thinking I might have to check into a hotel in Macon. I also had some normal emergency gear in my trunk. While grinding through icy gridlock for eleven hours, I knew that I had options even though my preference was to get home to my bride.
Some of the ways in which we can be prepared for emergencies, as outlined by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, are listed below. It would not be terribly difficult to stow a small duffel bag with the relevant portion of this list in the trunk of a car as well as at home. I have a hunch we are not finished with winter storms this year, so be prepared.
Boots with good traction soles.
Water. One gallon per person per day, for at least 3 days, for drinking and hygiene
Food. At least a 3-day supply of non-perishable food
Can opener. For food, if kit contains canned food
Radio. Battery-powered or hand crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert, and extra batteries for both
Flashlight and extra batteries
First aid kit
Whistle. To signal for help
Face mask. To help filter contaminated air and plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter in place
Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties. For personal hygiene
Wrench or pliers. To turn off utilities
Prescription medications and glasses
Infant formula and diapers
Pet food, extra water, pet supplies, toys and vaccination forms.
Important family documents such as copies of insurance policies, identification and bank account records in a waterproof, portable container
Cash or traveler’s checks and change
Emergency reference material such as a first aid book or information from Ready America
Sleeping bag or warm blanket for each person. Consider adding bedding in cold weather.
Complete change of clothing. Include a long sleeved shirt, long pants and sturdy shoes. Consider adding warm clothing in cold weather.
Household chlorine bleach and medicine dropper
Matches in a waterproof container
Feminine supplies and personal hygiene items
Mess kits, paper cups, plates, plastic utensils, paper towels
Paper and pencil
Books, games, puzzles or other activities for children.
Winter is not over. Meteorology elves tell me we may yet have an even bigger winter storm within the next few weeks. Metro Atlanta will still not be well prepared because decades of development decisions have hampered our ability to coordinate transportation. So make your own plans, watch the weather and be prepared to take care of yourself and your family without waiting for someone else to make the decisions for you.
Ken Shigley is past president of the State Bar of Georgia (2011-12), double board certified in Civil Trial Advocacy and Civil Pretrial Advocacy by the National Board of Legal Specialty Certification, and lead author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation and Practice. His Atlanta-based civil trial practice is focused on representation of plaintiffs in cases of castastrophic personal injury and wrongful death.