Gwnewch y pethau bychain

Should we talk about the weather…

At some point, I’m going to talk about GaFilk.  But right now, I want to talk about ice and snow, and Atlanta, and how the two cope with each other.

As many of you have heard, we had a spot of weather over the weekend of GaFilk.  Planes were grounded, roads were closed, and entire counties were shut down.  This predictably leads to folks who live in more northern climes, who are used to this sort of thing falling on their heads throughout the dark months of the year, to make incredulous, snickering comments about those wacky southerners and how they can’t handle a little snow.  And you know, I forgive you, because you don’t really understand any more than folks who live down here understand the way weather works up there. 

(People who actually live here making sanctimonious  comments about how they don’t see what the fuss was about can go **** themselves.  No, seriously, go take a long walk off a short pier, you insufferable, self-important pinheads.  But I digress…)

There are a number of factors which contribute to Atlanta having fits over a big snowstorm like this.  The first is that they are relatively rare.  I’ve lived in the north Georgia region for twenty years, and I can count the number of significant snowstorms on my fingers.   I can count the number of snowfalls of this calibre on one hand.  Even when the perfect conditions occur to create a major winter storm, its usually only a couple of days before things are back to relative normalcy. 

But in truth, the real reason folks up north deal better with the winter is not because they’re more hardy, or more accustomed, though both of those things contribute.  No, what folks in other parts of the country have that we lack is infrastructure.   In New England, or Minnesota, or other places where this sort of thing happens all the time, you can’t afford to just stay home until everything melts.   So you make investments in things like salt trucks, and snow ploughs, and shovels and rakes and implements of destruction.  You get special tires, or chains to put on your tires for extra traction.  You expect that frozen stuff will fall from the sky, and you make arrangements to get it off of the roads and your own driveways.  These things all contribute to being able to keep going when everything is frozen.

Atlanta has almost no winter infrastructure, and what little it has has been largely depleted by recent budget cuts.  According to an article in the Atlanta Journal-Consitution:

DeKalb has two plows and 10 salt spreaders. Cobb has six spreaders and no plows. Fulton has seven salters and no plows. Gwinnett has 18 spreaders and six plows. The city of Atlanta has 11 plows.

In comparison, Charlotte, which suffered citizen anger from slow response several years ago, expanded its fleet to 36 plows.

There was also (noted in that same article) a woeful lack of coordination between state and local officials, and the end result was that very little was deployed to get the roads clear.  This prolonged the situation for days, to the extent that major highways were still in poor condition four to five days after a storm.

If you want to have a discussion about how folks could have prepared better for a large winter storm they knew was coming, that’s a discussion that is worth having.  But given the lack of both history and infrastructure, don’t be so quick to judge the people of Atlanta for how they dealt with the icy roads.  The only safe sane, and sensible thing to do was stay home as much as humanly possible until sun and warmer temperatures made things more passable.

(For a more amusing take on Atlanta and the weather, enjoy this video posted by Megan McGlover, which made my day when I first saw it last night:


Yep, that’s me…


Random questions for a random day


  1. “There was also (noted in that same article) a woeful lack of coordination between state and local officials, and the end result was that very little was deployed to get the roads clear. This prolonged the situation for days, to the extent that major highways were still in poor condition four to five days after a storm.”

    I can definitely empathize. When the Christmas blizzard hit us, my block didn’t get plowed for the first time until Wednesday afternoon. The precautions our city didn’t take were further exacerbated by our mayor and his “let them eat cake” attitude towards anyone not living in Manhattan. (And to those who keep forgetting that NYC has *five* boroughs, not one, I invite you to take a stroll on that pier mentioned earlier.)

    In fact, there are still huge piles of snow left from that blizzard, which have now been topped off by a small snowstorm and a second (though smaller) blizzard. Hopefully, today’s precipitation changing from snow to rain will wash a fair amount of this away, but if the temperatures do go back to freezing too quickly, we will now have a layer of ice to traverse on top of the mess already here.

    I agree that the safe, sane thing to do when there is more snow than your infrastructure can cope with is to stay inside and off the streets. What I wonder about is why NYC’s mayor can’t get that declaring a weather emergency and that people should stay off the streets, then insisting (at the last moment, no less) that the schools remain open is not being consistent in the least, nor is it taking into account the city’s slow response (especially in the outer boroughs) to cleaning up the mess.

  2. My older kids where making those kind of noises. I reminded them about how far south Atlanta actually is. They looked thoughtful and hummed. When I talked to my Mom in Cobalt I asked her how many snowplows they have. Cobalt has THREE. OK they are responsible for plowing part of the transcanada highway but as you said they are SO used to dealing with snow. The hardest thing to deal with anywhere is freezing rain, or an ice storm. It’s hard to plow, it’s hard to salt, it’s a pain no matter what ever you do.

    • As far as I’m concerned all of the US apart from Alaska is ‘south’, most of it a long way south, so I tend to be surprised in the other direction that parts regularly have lots of snow and really low temperatures (we don’t realise how much benefit we get from the NAD and Gulf Stream).

      The problem here in the southern part of the UK is that not only have they been unprepared but they are /still/ not willing to prepare even after several severe winters in a row because “it probably won’t do it again”. (Last I saw the predictions were that it will be happening again for quite a few years.)

      I can well believe that there are people in GA and south of there who have never experienced snow in any great amount (except on organised holidays). I remember the shock of some friends in New Orleans when they had snow down there.

  3. I pick on the Southern climes for not being able to handle a few inches snow all the time, in the same way a friend of mine in Anchorage, AK picks on New York for getting our heads in a tizzy over a mere 2 feet of snow; that wouldn’t even rate as an inconvenience to them!

    That said, I usually follow up with “they don’t actually get that much of it and it doesn’t make sense to be that prepared for something that doesn’t really happen” (and, to be even fairer, you guys got walloped down there by a significant winter storm; if it had happened up here in NY, it still would have been a mess, although possibly* for not quite as long)

    *this is entirely idle speculation; I don’t know exactly how bad conditions were there, but from what I read and from what told me it looked pretty nasty

  4. Dude. That much snow when you aren’t able to deal would suck rocks. I mean, it’s bad when you do have plows and salt spreaders, and knowledge of how to make things happen quickly.

  5. I’m from the north…

    But having lived in Southern Virginia for the better part of the past decade, I sympathize. Sadly, most northerners will never understand what it means to see snow so rarely that a plow or salt truck is a waste of money. Glad you guys made it through okay.

  6. I am from Detroit and live in Atlanta now and you won’t hear any bitching from me about dealing with the snow. Last week was a nightmare, but I think everyone did as best as they could and franly I don’t want to pay higher taxes for something that might happen again in a decade or two. If we get hit three years in a row, then you can talk to me about spending more money on snow removal.

    Detroit has private contractors with plow attachmnets on their Ford Trucks. Those are the people who go into business parking lots or apartment complexes and clean things up -- and they are contracted by the business or the leasing company not the government. No one here is going to buy a plow attachment for their truck when they use it once every 7 years.

  7. Despite the fact that I grew up in TN, land of freezing rain/ice, I literally could not get my car out of my driveway here in Atlanta until a week later.

  8. Ditto on the Seattle weather. I am hoping that Seattle is more cooperative for Conflikt than Atlanta was for GAFilk

  9. Well, yeah. We’ll make fun of Atlanta for getting shut down by a few inches of snow — but mostly, we do know that this is because Atlanta lacks (for good reasons) the infrastructure needed to ignore it; we’re not really ridiculing Atlanta or Georgians, but noting the irony of difference.

    Re Dave--nah, the snow up here was way worse than the snow down in Georgia. No comparison, really (except the black ice--but the reason we didn’t have that level of black ice was because…again, infrastructure). Except that we’ve got, on every level, the resources needed to blow through the snow and keep sidewalks walkable and ice-free, whereas Atlanta doesn’t, in fact, have a standard that goes from making every single business and property owner responsible for keeping salt available and using it to keep the sidewalks walkable to a huge fleet of machines dedicated to making the roads drivable.

  10. My boss lives at the bottom of a hill and was unable to get out to walk to her car which, evidently, was stuck at the top of the hill because she was driving home that Sunday after the snow started. I don’t know the details.

    I must be one of the fortunate few. See, when you look at the local news here and they talk about the DOT facility on Cheshire Bridge, that facility is about a mile from me, so for me, the only problem was getting onto Cheshire Bridge. For some reason, all the roads I needed to take to work (except for the one I live on and the one my office building is on) are state roads, and you’d’ve figured they’d’ve been plowed. They weren’t. However, I was still able to navigate them to get to work because not only were other drivers navigating them, but some of the buses what were operating were navigating them, and there were these wonderful ruts in the snow for people to put their wheels. That said, I was able to get into the office, but no one else was until Tuesday afternoon, after I’d gone home because the building was dark, the temperature inside was extremely cold, and no one would answer their phones.

    I talked to the two younger attorneys in the office. One was able to get to the office on Tuesday, and the other, who lives in Stone Mountain, told me his usual 45-minute drive took him 2 hours the first day he drove (Friday), and that a state road he takes to get to the office was still not plowed or de-iced or whatever. It’s still taking him longer than usual to get to the office.

  11. The only safe sane, and sensible thing to do was stay home as much as humanly possible until sun and warmer temperatures made things more passable.

    Which it seems they did. I had to drive from New Orleans to Atlanta yesterday to catch a train, and there was scarcely a trace of snow left.

    I do envy the chipmunks sometimes; they go to sleep in November and when they wake up, it’s springtime.

  12. I was in Chicago for the blizzard of ’79 -- the one that came just after the city had sold a big chunk of that infrastructure to Minneapolis.

    I was in Tucson for the icestorm of ’86.

    You’ll hear no mockery from me. (I mock my California relatives for whimpering about temperatures, but that’s different….)

  13. I remember being boggled when Oxford shut down the bus system with 1/4 inch of snow. But then I watched the pedestrians and saw how many of them simply didn’t know how to deal with snow and ice, and I decided that it was probably wise to keep the buses from running. It’s all a matter of what you’re used to, what you have plans for, what you have equipment for, etc. If everywhere had unlimited time, funds, and so forth, everywhere could be prepared for everything. In the real world, however, that’s not going to happen!

  14. Actually, the infrastructure issue is everywhere. Up here in southeast Michigan, we have the infrastructure to keep things going except, on average, maybe one day a year (some years no problem, some years things shut down for days. As far as I can tell, everyplace has the infrastructure to deal with snow, except on average maybe on day a year (some years no problem, some years things shut down for days). The net effect is that places with less snow will be shut down by less snow, an people in places with more snow will chuckle amongst themselves at what wusses the less-snow-ites are. Here in southeastern Michigan, we’ll make fun of southern states not coping with a few inches of snow; people in the Upper Penninsula will make fun of us for not coping with a few feet of snow. But I think every government makes pretty much the same decision--it’s too expensive to maintain readiness too keep everything running 3652.5 days a decade, so we’ll just let the non-essentials 5-10 of those days.

  15. Yeah, Portland Oregon was like this too. Parts of it are very hilly and really, it only snows maybe once a year and snowplows are expensive, and you have to keep them somewhere out of the weather and that’s expensive too…

    And when it does snow (or freezing rain) the city comes to a grinding halt and stays that way until it melts.

    This part of Tennessee has actually got better snow-infrastructure than the West Hills of Portland did--but it also snows slightly more often here, so that makes sense.

  16. Yeah, (lack of) infrastructure, motivated by infrequent need, is the big factor here. And there are certainly unlikely-but-not-impossible natural events that we would be totally unprepared for up here, so I’m betting it balances out in the end.

  17. Yah, what I didn’t get at first was that it wasn’t the snow, but the ice. Once that was explained, it all made sense, as I was thinking about airlines, where a little ice really does make that much difference.

    The infrastructure issue was clearer when we decided to go to Waffle House on Monday, and had to form a human chain on the way back for a few icy patches that probably wouldn’t have existed as such with infrastructure. Oh, sure, there would have been patches of ice, but with enough salt and plows, one could walk around the icy patches. There and then? Not happening.

  18. The Seattle metro area, in spite of being much further north than Atlanta, is in pretty much the same infrastructure situation. The snow removal equipment is all up in the mountains. There’s very little of it down here because we only get snow about every second or third year, two or three times, tops, in those years. Plus we get ice, then snow, then ice. I used to drive in Colorado and Midwest snow with impunity. It’s not the same as the ice sandwich we get here in the Pacific Northwest.

  19. I can understand cities like Atlanta that really don’t often get bad winter weather not having the infrastructure to deal with snow storms. What I can’t understand is cities where it snows every year sticking their heads in the sand saying “it doesn’t snow here” and not acquiring appropriate infrastructure. The city in central Virginia where I went to college in the early 1980s was like that. Every year that I was there had at least one major snow storm of up to 20 inches. Every year they ran around like chickens with their heads cut off when it snowed. Twenty years later my sister went to the same school and the city was still acting the same way. Every year she was there it still snowed. When I was there last winter they’d just had well over a foot of snow. Still they say it doesn’t snow. Even if they want to pretend it doesn’t snow, perhaps they could stop pretending that freezing rain doesn’t happen because that really does make it impossible to safely drive if the roads aren’t treated.

  20. I do apologize for the tweet. I know it was probably annoying.

    What gets me is not situations like Atlanta’s, necessarily — if you really almost never get snow then of course it makes sense not to be prepared for it if it happens. But take the case of an area like the DC Metro area. I lived there for ~15 years. They probably have better infrastructure than they did when I lived there, but the whole damn place STILL shuts down when there is significant snow. YET THEY KNOW THEY’RE GOING TO GET IT.

    Same is true on the VA Peninsula where I now live. You won’t find me leaving the house if it snows more than a couple of inches. The infrastructure and coordination just doesn’t exist to remove the stuff, EVEN THOUGH IT SNOWS HEAVILY HERE SOMETIMES AND EVERYONE KNOWS IT.

    When I lived in Los Angeles, I did my damnedest not to have to drive on the freeways during rainstorms because the people there drive in the rain like people drive in the snow here. Oh, and the freeways aren’t graded to drain off the water. NOT KIDDING.

    That’s my big beef, and it’s why I made a joke about Atlanta shutting down, even though Atlanta really doesn’t have any reason to be prepared. But even cities that do have a reason choose not to be, and that is VERY frustrating.

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