30 January 2014

Snow MG! It's This Week in Water: Local Edition

Greetings from Snowmageddon, Snowpocalypse Atlanta.

Our region has been the laughing stock of the country for the past couple days. Images of traffic jams to end all traffic jams (outside of China) have been all over the media. We have seen stories of thousands of school children stranded in their schools and on their school buses. We've heard reports of folks whose commutes home from work on Tuesday afternoon lasted until Wednesday evening. We watched as thousands of people simply abandoned their cars on the side of the interstate highways and found their way to a supermarket or pharmacy for the night. There was even the incident of the woman who gave birth while stuck in traffic.

There are a number of identifiable reasons this disaster came about. Number One: There is, unfortunately, some truth to the stereotype that Southerners don't know how to drive in the snow. Unlike our Northern and Western brethren, we don't rotate our automobile tires out when cold weather rolls around. No one here owns snow tires or chains. That's because we don't get that much snow. Many winters we get no snow whatsoever here in Atlanta. This doesn't stop drivers here from tailgating or going too fast around icy corners or curtailing their driving in this sort of weather. And there are a lot of drivers here. (See Number Three below)

Number Two: Snow here tends to be different from snow elsewhere. I've driven on snow out west and up north, and it can be done. Here, when snow falls, the roads are so warm that it melts almost as soon as it hits. That plus an undiminished flow of traffic causes the otherwise drivable snow to turn to mush and water which pools on low-lying areas of the roadways and bridges. Then, when happens what happened this week, that is the temperature drops precipitously after an afternoon snow (from 30º F to 11º F in the space of a couple hours), the watery slush on the roads turns to vast sheets of hard, black ice. No one can drive on black ice without chains. [Plus see Number One above] And even then it's treacherous.

Number Three: There is no unified political organization to this region. Atlanta, the city itself, has a population of less than a half million. The greater Atlanta Metro region has a population closer to six million. This encompasses some 16 counties, each with its own political system and subsystems. Millions of people commute into the city on a daily basis, some traveling as much as an hour or an hour-and-a-half each way. Almost all of this takes place on the three interstate highways, I-20, I-75, and I-85, that converge on downtown, and the Perimeter, aka I-285, a 67-mile highway loop that encircles the city. Traffic and transit in the region is, to say the least, a patchwork. There is no unified transit authority. The subway system, MARTA, does not extend far outside the city limits. In effect, there is no mass transit for the folks in these outlying suburban and exurban communities. So, all it takes is one transfer truck to jackknife on a patch of black ice to shut down one of these major arteries. And there were, by some reports, close to 1,000 accidents on the major thoroughfares on Tuesday afternoon. The entire region was shut down. Gridlocked. Frozen, if you will, for close to 24 hours.

Number Four: Because threats of snow here often fail to pan out, school officials in the various school districts here (and there are dozens) for the most part failed to call off schools before the storm hit. Snow began falling around noon, came down fairly hard, got packed down on the roads, melted, then froze before the various political organizations could get their acts into gear and release the school kids, government workers, and other commuters. The roads got busy all at once, and this was at exactly the same time they started icing over.

Number Five: Because we get so little snow here on an annual basis, our municipalities cannot justify budgeting for snow/ice removal equipment. There is practically no salt or sand for this purpose. And the few snow plows there are are woefully inadequate to clear the tens of thousands of miles of streets and highways throughout the region—even if our politicians could effectually marshall and deploy them.

Bottom line: It was a mell of a hess, as we tend to say down here. So much for 'This Week in Water: Local Edition."

Temperatures rose to a more seasonal 50º today, but there are still patches of black ice in shady spots near bodies of water. I saw one car that had skidded into a stop sign this afternoon. And Sunday it's supposed to get into the 60's.


Randal Graves said...

Ain't going to be the last time you guys get hammered. Better buy some Tonka trucks.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Here's my local "This week in water."

Jim H. said...

These Polar Vortexes are brutal!

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

interesting that you call your beltway "the perimeter" - i'd assumed that EVERYBODY called their beltway "the beltway"