On Jan. 28, traffic gridlocked around Atlanta, including this stretch of Hammond Drive in Sandy Springs.
On Jan. 28, traffic gridlocked around Atlanta, including this stretch of Hammond Drive in Sandy Springs.

Once the ice melted and the traffic gridlock eased, local officials began considering how to improve future reactions to storms like the one that froze metro Atlanta in January.

“We will do a post-mortem to assess things we did well and what could have been done better,” Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said.

Dunwoody Police Chief Billy Grogan, who worked more than 30 hours straight during the storm Jan. 28 and 29, said his staff, too, would review their actions to look for ways to improve.

The storm that blew in Jan. 28 closed schools and created traffic tie-ups so bad that people abandoned vehicles to walk, or spent dozens of hours sitting in cars waiting for traffic to clear.

Shelters opened at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School and Congregation Or Hadash, Paul said, and people spent the night at several businesses. Some children were stuck overnight at schools. Sandy Springs City Manager John McDonough said 334 mortorists stayed in shelters.

Dunwoody police Sgt. Fidel Espinoza delivered gas and blankets to stranded motorists using an ATV. He said most officers ended up staying the night, sleeping at City Hall. “We ran out of cots and people ended up sleeping on the floor,” he said.

Despite sharp criticism leveled at state government officials for their actions during and prior to the storm, several local civic leaders seemed pleased overall with their community’s response. “Across the board, we had a great response,” McDonough said.

Paul said Sandy Springs officials got a jump on the storm. “We pre-treated the roads around the hospitals before the snow started as a precaution and also targeted schools to help bus traffic,” he wrote. “The city issued updates at least every two hours throughout the emergency period, using social media and email chains to get crucial information to our citizens. … The council members did a magnificent job of distributing this emergency information to people in their districts, which helped many people avoid impassable areas in their struggle to get home.”

Volunteers jumped in to help, providing stranded motorists with water, food and shelter. In Dunwoody, Tony Delmechi said people stopped in at his home for cocoa and bathroom breaks, and a group spent the night in his basement. In Brookhaven, Joel Callahan fed and walked dogs for a neighbor he didn’t know after posting an offer to help on a community bulletin board.

Part of the reason for the gridlock, Grogan pointed out, was that many people were at work when the storm hit and were headed home to neighboring communities, so they all were trying to drive on the same roads. “Everybody wanted to leave at the same time,” Grogan said.

Grogan said Dunwoody police received 222 service calls in 18 hours. The department usually receives about 75 calls in 24 hours, he said. McDonough said Chatcomm, the city’s 911 center, received 4,062 calls for service between noon Jan. 28 and 6 p.m. Jan. 29.

“I can’t say enough about our staff …,” Grogan said on the department’s Facebook page. “Not once did I hear an officer complain about the harsh working conditions, the workload or the long hours.”

Paul said public response to city officials has been favorable, too. “I received more than 300 emails and Facebook posts thanking us for keeping them informed about the situation and activities that occurred, while commending our first responders and public works personnel,” he said.

Grogan wrote on Facebook that his department will soon begin looking for ways to improve reaction to future storms.

“In hindsight, the two things that would have helped the most would have been if the schools had closed Tuesday [Jan. 28], and if many of the businesses had closed as well and their employees had stayed home,” Grogan wrote. “Fortunately, we can all learn from events such as this and improve upon our future responses.”

Snow shoes?
Joey Carbonara, left, and Chandler Parks, sophomores at St. Pius X Catholic High School, were spotted hauling their basketball gear along Spalding Drive, near Temple Emanu-El in Sandy Springs, on Jan. 29. Carbonara and Parks were walking in order to meet Carbonara’s father so he would not have to drive down an icy hill to pick them up.
The two said they were supposed to get a ride from a friend’s mom on Jan. 28 since school let out early. However, icy conditions on Spalding made the drive treacherous, so instead of getting a ride home, their friend’s mom took them to her house, where they stayed the night. The next day was spent “playing video games indoors,” said Carbonara, and running on the icy roads outdoors, said Parks. “It was fun,” Parks added.
Elizabeth Wilkes

Dunwoody resident Robin Isaf found her usual trip to pick up her kids at school turned into a trial by icy road.

“I was one of the many who looked up at the sky at 7:30 Tuesday morning and said, ‘Nah, nothing to worry about.’” … “I knew that there would be an early dismissal [from school] and I was grateful for the school’s judiciousness. My boys would be home just after lunchtime and I had big plans for the day. I’d pick up my carpool. I’d leave 45 minutes early and be the first one in the carpool line. Then, once we got home — maybe it would take as much as an hour! — I’d make hot chocolate and a pot of soup, and we’d revive ourselves with something warm, and then I’d settle in in front of my laptop again while they went out and frolicked in the snow.

“So much for the best laid plans.

“I hit the road to get to their school about the same time that a few innocent-looking flurries began, and at precisely the same time that the entire metro Atlanta population of 6 million all left their respective homes and offices. It took me three times longer than usual to get to school.

“It took almost an hour to leave the school parking lot, even though there was a policeman directing traffic, primarily because the main road outside the school was so backed-up… I had been concerned about ice, but it soon became clear that the elements were nothing compared to the surrounding drivers. I’m convinced that all of us would have made it home at least five hours sooner if we only waited our turn and resisted the urge to drive through a green light if there wasn’t enough room to keep the intersection open. Thank goodness I had a full tank of gas…and went to the bathroom when I had the chance.

“As I rolled along with my carpool at a rate of less than 1 mile per hour, we were passed by groups of school kids wearing backpacks, and fathers pulling children in makeshift hamper sleds, and it became clear to us that there would be no snow frolicking today. The boy I was driving convinced me (and his mother, via his cellphone), to let him out of the car to walk the last quarter mile home. We had been sitting in a line of vehicles waiting to turn left onto Mount Vernon Highway for more than 30 minutes. I gave him my cap and gloves, and his prudence probably saved us two additional hours in the car.

“In the amount of time it would have taken me to drive to Florida, I covered 4 1/2 miles. I made it safely home with my boys. They were frustrated. I was exhausted.”

Slip and slide
From left, Malena Shipley, 9, Fernando Reyes, 6, and Jesus Reyes, 4, who live in the Drew Valley Road area in Brookhaven, take off down an icy street on Jan. 29, using the tops of DeKalb County recycling bins as sleds.

Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church opened a shelter for stranded motorists. Rector Michael Sullivan found himself turning to social media to help people find their way in the storm.

“In the midst of this storm, no committee was necessary. No meeting was held. No agenda prepared. No, social media and its immediate power to connect and mobilize people for action is the lesson.

“Within the first hours, a citizen in Atlanta set up a Twitter and Facebook profile for people stranded in cars. The group, SnowedOutAtlanta, established by Michelle Sollicito, had thousands of followers within minutes. It immediately became the chief means of communication for those with smartphones who were stranded in cars. Water and food were coordinated via this amazing resource.

“Our parish opened as a shelter. It was just the right thing to do. But just like SnowedOutAtlanta, the ministry started taking on a new dimension via social media. We connected with our metro Atlanta city, Sandy Springs, via Facebook and Twitter. We became an official city shelter because I talked to Mayor Rusty Paul via Facebook messaging. We repeatedly posted we were open, and news spread as a contagion.

“By 2 in the morning, I was using Facebook to instruct walking motorists how to get to the church. I was also assuring parents that the shelter was safe, and sons and daughters were OK. I became an online pastor. Soon, I was using Twitter and other outlets to ask for food, water, blankets and pillows from neighbors who might raid their pantries and closets.

“And it all worked. People responded with such generosity that we will make a run to the food pantry as this city returns to normal. Within an hour of my initial posts, we had hot-cooked oatmeal, stockpots of soups, baby food and formula, toiletries, needed medication, and the list goes on. Social media became the way to connect faith and action, people to people, relationship to relationship.

“Some of my colleagues laugh about the church on Facebook and Twitter; I’ve even heard some say the church must resist such relationless forms of communication. Personally, I’ve known for a few years now that a good 90 percent of pastoral information comes via Facebook.

“Now I know that faith goes into action via these same avenues when a disaster strikes. These forms of communication saved lives in Atlanta, and made a difference for a community of faith’s response to disaster. … So, while other people are pointing fingers, I am busy training mine to text better.”

It took Peggy Shaw, public relations coordinator for Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School, nearly 24 hours to get from Sandy Springs to Decatur.

“’I love snow!’ I actually said these words Tuesday morning as we gazed at snowflakes fluttering down outside the windows of Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School. Feeling confident, , since I’m from Virginia and had parents who taught me to “drive in snow,” I dallied until 1:30 p.m., taking photos, before heading home.

“By the end, almost 24 nerve-wracking hours later, I had slid backward down one Sandy Springs hill, crept in a crush of cars and trucks inching along Roswell Road, and, finally, slip-slided down Peachtree Road, swept along in a mass of bumper-to-bumper traffic moving ahead like nervous cattle.

“Between Buckhead and Midtown, I noticed the big, Italianate Atlanta Amtrak Station looming ahead. And about the same time, I realized that I was approaching the I-75/85 overpass just beyond… with, possibly, a glaze of hazardous black ice. I gingerly managed to navigate the frightening overpass, and soon afterward spotted a place I later thought of as the Stay-At-Your-Own-Risk Motel. I was able to rent the last room for $99 a night plus tax—a dingy smoking room with exposed wiring, torn-up carpet, and a TV that offered one channel, Fox 5, my one real link to the nightmare happening outside.

“I felt incredibly grateful, however, for this shelter from the storm as I watched vehicles being abandoned on the interstates, stranded travelers walking miles in snow, and people hunkering down in places like a Kroger or Home Depot. After 12 anxious hours of not knowing whether or not I would remain stranded another night, my son, a young police officer, rescued me in his four-wheel drive Jeep. We got my SUV about halfway home before having to leave it in a grocery store parking lot. By Wednesday around noon—just about the same time that on Tuesday I had pronounced my love of snow—I was home.

Jobie Ponder and 15 other senior citizens who set out for an outing in Atlanta found themselves facing a harrowing trip back to Sandy Springs.

“We went to a lovely luncheon at a Chinese restaurant. While eating, the beautiful snow started coming slowly down. Quickly loading the bus we started the 8-mile trip to our home. It took us eight hours before we reached a gas station with a bathroom. It took seven more hours before the bus arrived home. Of course seniors adjust to many different circumstances. That’s how we got to be seniors. There was joke-telling and laughing at anything you could think of. We sang on the bus many times. The one we sang the most was “Show Me The Way To Go Home.”

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.