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Mark Bradley

SnowJam 2014: Atlanta at its absolute worst

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Atlanta at dawn on Wednesday. (Ben Gray/AJC)

And here we Atlantans figured it was New York/New Jersey that would get snowed on and gridlocked and embarrassed on a civic level this week. Turns out we sunny Southerners aren’t impervious to Super Bowl weather — before the Chick-fil-A Bowl moved indoors and became the Chick-fil-A Bowl, we used to call it “Peach Bowl weather” — even when the Super Bowl is being staged 880 miles to the north.

What happened Tuesday — what is happening still — was/is the most sobering experience of the almost-30 years I’ve spent in Atlanta. Using the Weather Channel’s measure, this part of Cobb County saw just under two inches of snow. We didn’t get sleet. We didn’t get freezing rain, though the freezing would come later. This was not the epic ice storm of 2011 that paralyzed Atlanta for a full working week. This was two inches of snow on a Tuesday morning/afternoon.

At 11:50 a.m. Tuesday, I drove home from a non-essential errand — I got my hair cut — as the snow was starting. I knew Cobb County schools planned to dismiss two hours early. There were no traffic issues at 11:50, and I assumed my wife, who works five minutes from our house, and my younger daughter, whose school is 15 minutes away, would be home before things got dicey.

At 12:58, I clicked on the Atlanta traffic map. (Bobby Cox is one of those who watches radar weather as a habit; I’m one who checks traffic.) Having lived here three decades, nothing should surprise me. This shocked me so much that I made an iPhone screenshot to preserve the image.

In the span of an hour, Atlanta had turned not so much white with snow as red with coagulated roads. My wife called to say she was headed to school to drive my daughter home. They would arrive at 5:30 p.m., having required five hours to go five miles on South Cobb Drive and the East-West Connector — two major Cobb arteries — before ditching the car at a bank and walking the last mile.

Atlanta traffic at 12:58 p.m. Tuesday. (MB)

Atlanta traffic at 12:58 p.m. Tuesday. (MB)

I drove to the top of our hilly subdivision to pick them up and was met by a dozen folks trudging up the hill on Cooper Lake. One man I asked said he was walking because his car couldn’t negotiate the slope. The men to whom we gave rides said they’d just tired of sitting on the E-W Connector.

As it turned out, my family and our home-before-dark neighbors were lucky. I figured the gridlock would ease once folks got where they were going — yes, I’m as good at predicting traffic as I am at picking games — but as the night wore on we keep hearing stories via Twitter and Facebook that were, pun absolutely not intended, chilling.

The school bus my daughter would have ridden had my wife not driven her home (or nearly home) couldn’t make the grade on the E-W Connector and had turned around and parked at Publix. This was at 8:30 p.m., seven hours after official dismissal. The hungry kids walked across the shopping center to the China Wok, which took mercy on them and provided food.

We heard of nine-hour slogs home for neighbors; of even longer slogs that hadn’t yet gotten the sloggers home; of Cobb students and teachers and principals sleeping overnight at their schools. One of the givens of American life — that after a day at work or school, you’ll get to go home — was a given no more.

The attempt here isn’t to assess blame. (For one thing, I see mitigating circumstances. Should school systems have closed all day for a storm that hadn’t begun and never rose to the level of a blizzard? Can roads be salted when they’re already jammed? Should governors and mayors be responsible for regulating human behavior?) This is more an admission of a frailty that, before Tuesday afternoon, I didn’t know existed. I didn’t know we as a city were this vulnerable to two inches of snow.

Northerners cluck about Southerners not knowing how to drive in the snow, and that’s partially true. (Also understandably true, given that we don’t get much practice.) But SnowJam 2014 was as much a function of congestion as it was meteorological conditions or automotive dexterity. We have too many cars and not enough roads, and when something happens to put most of us on those roads at the exact same moment and then those roads ice over … well, we can’t handle it. It pains me to admit it, but we just can’t.

We were flummoxed by the ice storm on the Friday before our Super Bowl in January 2000. (That put a crimp into the Friday-night parties, which really frosted the NFL.) Much of downtown was brought to a standstill — there was no weather involved — on the Saturday before the NBA All-Star Game in 2003. The 1996 Olympics went off better than they probably should have because ACOG terrified everyone into taking MARTA, but MARTA, for much of the metro area on an everyday basis, isn’t a viable option. When we Cobb Countians fret about the traffic jams that could arise from the Braves’ planned relocation to the Galleria area, we have reason.

Were I an organization considering where to put a major sporting event staged in the winter months, I’d look elsewhere. Imagine if we’d gotten our two inches of snow on Super Bowl Media Day. Imagine adding team buses and media shuttles and Roger Goodell’s limo to the crush that hit our streets Tuesday. I know we just played host to a Final Four that came off nicely, but that was in April. If there’s even a jot of bad weather, we go belly-up. And by “we,” I don’t just mean mayors and governments and school boards and GDOT. I mean all of us.

Saying as much brings no joy. I like living here — always have, always will. But, as Inspector Harry Callahan said, a man has to know his limitations. The downside of living in Atlanta is that we’re bad with traffic and worse with weather. When the two were fused by two inches of snow, we were at our absolute worst.

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