ATLANTA (CNN) — A day after up to 3 inches of snow in parts of Georgia shut down many of metro Atlanta’s roadways, officials acknowledged Wednesday they could have planned better for the storm.
And this time, they really mean it, they said, referring to their handling of a storm three years ago.
“I’m willing to take whatever blame comes my way and, if I’m responsible for it, I will accept that,” Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal told reporters.
“We all have some lessons we need to learn here from this,” he said. “And I think we all will.”
As the governor spoke, thousands of schoolchildren who had been put on buses Tuesday afternoon still had not reached home. Deal said state troopers, police or members of the National Guard would escort many of their buses.
But such a move won’t help those still trapped on roads and highways — many of which are littered with abandoned vehicles — that remained unpassable.
The need to release students, government workers and private employees in stages instead of all at once was a chief lesson, said Deal, who blamed the mass exodus for the gridlock that paralyzed the Atlanta metro area and left some motorists stranded for more than 12 hours.
“People were making a lot of independent decisions,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said. “What we will do in the future is try to coordinate that and make a strong recommendation about how that should flow.”
Asked who was at fault for the traffic gridlock, the mayor said, “I’m not going to get into that blame game, but the crisis that we’re going through is across the region. So, if you look at anybody’s street in any community across the entire region, there’s no one who’s doing any better job than we’re doing in the city of Atlanta.”
Later, he acknowledged that “we made a mistake by not staggering when people should leave, so I will take responsibility for that — in lessons learned,” he said.
“If we had to do it again, we would have said, ‘Schools, you go first, private sector, you go second, and government goes last.’ And so I think that would have helped.”
In an interview with CNN’s Carol Costello, Reed said he has been working nonstop. “We got 1 million people in the city of Atlanta out of the city; we haven’t had any fatalities in the city of Atlanta; we got all of the children who were on school buses in the (Atlanta Public Schools) system off of those buses, and I’ve been communicating with the people of the city on a constant basis.”
But he said the timing of the closures was not his call. In the case of when students were sent home, it was up to the Atlanta Public Schools, and the responsibility for clearing the freeways was the state’s, he said.
Reed further noted the city responded better than it did after a 2011 ice storm, which stopped the metro area dead in its tracks for four days.
The city now has 30 spreaders, 40 snowplows and 70,000 tons of sand and gravel versus just four pieces of equipment three years ago, he said.
In 2011, “nothing was done because no one had any equipment,” he said.
But Tuesday’s gridlock made it impossible for workers to use the equipment on many of the roads, according to Deal. “I don’t know the best way to solve that,” he said.
He also pointed to the complicating role played by big rigs, which he blamed for “a major portion” of the congestion as a result of jackknifing.
Deal said he based the decisions he made on the best evidence then available to him. “If we closed the city of Atlanta and our interstate system based on maybes, then we would not be a very productive government or a city,” he said. “We can’t do it based on the maybes.”
He added, “I think we have done a reasonable job. Could we have prevented it? That’s the question … I don’t think anybody can say.”
Asked if he wanted to apologize to his constituents, Deal said, “I apologize to them for the fact that they are in the situation that has occurred. If it was based on my decisions, yes, I apologize for that. Will we try to make better decisions based on the knowledge we gain from this? Yes, we will. But we can never promise because it would be an unrealistic promise, that we will always be correct when it comes to deciding what Mother Nature is going to do. Because she has a mind of her own.”
By Wednesday afternoon, a day after leaving school by bus, some Atlanta-area students still had not reached home. Atlanta Public Schools spokeswoman Kimberly Willis Green said Wednesday that “several hundred students at nine schools” had remained there overnight.
Nine-mile trip becomes nightmare
Students weren’t the only ones who had a tough time. Rebekah Cole left work Tuesday afternoon and was still sitting in traffic 10 hours later — at 1 a.m. Wednesday. She said she hoped her car wouldn’t run out of fuel as she prepared to spend the night in it.
She described what she had seen as a “zombie movie” — droves of people got out of their cars and were having conversations.
“I’m eight months’ pregnant and have my 3-year-old with me,” Atlanta-area resident Katie Norman Horne said on SnowedOutAtlanta, a Facebook page set up to help stranded motorists.
“We’ve been in the car for over 12 hours. We are fine on gas but is anyone near on the road and might happen to have any food or some water?”
Stranded travelers sought refuge at strangers’ homes and in schools and businesses. Home Depot opened 26 stores to travelers overnight in Alabama and Georgia.
A big problem
Similar stories unfolded elsewhere in the Deep South, from Louisiana to North Carolina, as snow, freezing rain and sleet laid down a sheet of thin ice in a region unfamiliar with such weather.
Motorists set out for home at the first sight of snow, clotting the streets.
In Alabama, five people died, and 23 people were injured, the state Emergency Management Agency said Wednesday.
The governor deployed 350 National Guard troops to help motorists.
In Georgia, two storm-related deaths were confirmed. A 60-year-old woman died Tuesday afternoon in Senoia when her van drove into a ditch and overturned, the Georgia State Patrol said.
And a 17-year-old boy was killed in Henry County when his pickup struck a tree Tuesday evening, police said.
The Georgia State Patrol said it had tallied 1,254 accidents and 130 injuries.
Forecasters had warned that Atlanta was expecting 1 to 2 inches. But in the morning, when the snow had not arrived, people went to work and school, like nothing was coming.
Then it did.
At about the same time early Tuesday afternoon, schools, businesses and government offices sent home students and workers as the streets began to ice.
Motorists thought they could deal with it. They couldn’t. The spin-outs began.
Mariano Castillo, a news editor at CNN.com, got a firsthand view of the chaos from behind the steering wheel when he joined the exodus from downtown trying to get home.
“The weather was a great equalizer,” he said after sitting in traffic for nine hours. “(It) didn’t matter if you had a late model Mustang or a beater van or a Brink’s armored car, your wheels were spinning fruitlessly on the ice.”
Abandoned cars and stranded big rigs stood in what looked like vehicle graveyards made more eerie by the sound of would-be commuters talking and walking on the interstate, he said.
The experience was mystifying to Stephen Gianopulos, 40, who moved to Georgia this month from Chicago. Shortly before 6 p.m. Tuesday, he left his office in Atlanta’s Buckhead section. But, after sitting in his car for 20 minutes without getting anywhere, he went back to his office. “I couldn’t understand why nobody was moving; the streets weren’t icy yet,” he said.
At 7:30 p.m., he tried it again, completing the 6-mile commute in one and a half hours.
In Chicago, the snowfall “would be a non-issue,” Gianopulos said. “It wouldn’t even make news.”
The catastrophe brought out the goodness in many people.
“I got some tea from some kids, from them and their mom,” Cole said. But that soon resulted in another problem — there was no place to stop for a bathroom break. She quit drinking fluids.
But it was a mere inconvenience compared with the situation of a woman in labor in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs.
Traffic jams blocked her way to the hospital and kept paramedics from reaching her, so — with the aid of a police officer — she delivered her daughter Tuesday evening.
In Alabama, teachers stayed in their classrooms to care for stranded students.
The weather forced 4,500 students to spend the night in school buildings in Hoover, Alabama. And 800 students were stuck overnight in schools in Birmingham, officials said.
Former Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who coordinated relief efforts along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, did not equivocate in finding fault.
“They need to have in Atlanta the same type of government you have in New York City, where the mayor controls the city and everything around that city, and the mayor can make decisions on road closures; he has emergency powers as when schools close,” he told CNN.
The schools and the government should have been closed Tuesday, he said. “I hope the governor and the mayor learn from this that they’re going to have to act before these events, not make some symbolic gesture after.”
He called their performance “a failure to lead.”
CNN’s Catherine E. Shoichet, Ray Sanchez, Steve Almasy, Devon Sayers, Michael Pearson, Holly Yan, Greg Botelho, Kevin Conlon, Dave Alsup, Janet DiGiacomo, Alanne Orjoux, Victor Blackwell, Chad Myers, Sean Morris, Dave Hennen, Joe Sutton, Martin Savidge and Jareen Imam contributed to this report.