Blizzards of the Southern Wild
History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man
How did this happen? How did one inch of accumulated snow bring a major American city and a region to a grinding and extended halt in the span of an afternoon?
People raised and residing in communities and regions where snow is a common seasonal precipitate tend to focus on snowfall amounts when they look at Southern snowfall situations. They measure their winters in how muchs and how longs, so that focus makes sense. Others classify their winters, from a snowfall perspective, in ifs, however, and when they have snow-related troubles, the amount of snow has little to do with the cause and manifestation of those troubles.
“How could one inch of snow shut down a city?” That starting point not only will cause the questioner to miss the real cause of the problem, but it indicates a basic misunderstanding about the questioner’s own, inevitable snow troubles. When it comes to problem-inducing snowfall events in different regions, the difference is a matter of degree, not of kind. Some communities, like Detroit and Boston, merely have higher tolerance thresholds than others, like Atlanta and Birmingham. The “how much?” question is relevant to the determination of those thresholds, but, for every community, significant seasonal struggles only materialize “if” that threshold, whatever it may be, is met. It could be two inches in Hattiesburg or two feet in Harrisburg; that twenty-two-inch difference is not really important.
People who live in communities that are familiar with and expect and are prepared for snow laugh when those who do not take anticipatory actions like cleaning out grocery stores and cancelling school. I have learned that these are not irrational, panic-driven actions, however. When even an inch of snow falls in an area equipped to handle no more than zero inches of snow, vehicular and even pedestrian transportation can become very dangerous. When some of those anticipatory actions are not taken, real problems can result.
Infrastructure deficiencies are a central cause of winter weather problems. Communities that only rarely receive any snow are unlikely to have or have in sufficient quantity rudimentary implements and equipment like snow plows, shovels, salt trucks, and tire chains. In such cases, even an inch of snow on roads and sidewalks can quickly become a broad sheet of ice that would present a movement challenge regardless of latitude.
In addition, a community’s more traditional infrastructure– the road system– can play a role. Atlanta is known for having bad traffic on a good-weather day. While a lack of city planning may bear some of the blame, historical and daily demographic realities, while not unrelated, may be of a magnitude that simply overshadows the other factors. Georgia’s population has doubled over the last forty years or so. Additionally, with the well-known exception of Washington, D.C., no city of at least 250,000 people experiences as large a workday population increase as Atlanta (62.4%; next largest is Tampa, Florida, at 47.5%). Choreographing the movement of that relative volume of (overwhelmingly automobile) commuters is messy on a good day.
More than anything, it was traffic, and the weather’s disruption of typical traffic flow (and not the fact of the weather itself), that was central to most of the well-publicized problems Atlanta and the region experienced last month. For example, some outside the region seemed to believe that the reason many schoolchildren spent the night at their schools was because their parents were too afraid of the snow to venture out to pick them up. In reality, the schools were inaccessible to parents due to the gridlocked status of the roads, just as the children’s homes were inaccessible to school buses. The story of Grace Anderson, the baby born on the interstate while her pregnant mother and father attempted to reach a hospital, is more fully illustrative of the circumstances.
From an emergency management response perspective (as distinct from an emergency preparedness perspective), then, the failure here– and the flaw in the perception of those observing from outside the region– was a failure to appreciate that the problems that would arise would be problems of infrastructure, rather than possibly irrational responses to weather qua weather.