Southern Snow and Lessons Learned

Last Tuesday was one of those days in Atlanta, and much of the Southeast.  It snowed.  It snowed where it wasn’t supposed to.  And it caused lots of problems.  The next day wasn’t any better because, although the sun came out, it never got out of the 20’s and the snow and ice stayed.  Not until Thursday did the ice melt away and everything return to normal.  You’ve surely seen the images on TV of cars parked on the interstates, children spending the night stuck at school and hundreds of traffic accidents.  The blame-game started almost immediately and various politicians and officials have been standing in front of reporters’ microphones since Tuesday afternoon, first blaming everyone from God to the weatherman, then, later, apologizing for their roles in the poor decision making (whatever those might have been).  There have been a number of analyses of “what went wrong,” and I guess this will be another one – but perhaps with a little bit of a different take on it.   

How about this from a libertarian blogger?:  There is nothing that any politician or government agency could have or should have done differently or better.

The worst thing that can happen as a result of these kinds of mass regional incidents is that government leaders feel empowered to “fix the problem.”  Atlanta Mayor Reed’s biggest take-away on the day after the snow was that he needs to “exercise more and better control of when the schools are released, when private sector employees are dismissed, and when government workers are excused” – as if he can somehow wave his scepter and dictate when I get to leave my office during a crises.  Within a few days, the second seal was broken and Mayor Reed, not surprisingly, declared that more money needs to be spent to add additional equipment and to hire an over-paid administrator to oversee the City’s response to future disasters.   The Georgia Governor has been equally on the hot seat for the State’s handling of the snow.  Although from a different political party than Mayor Reed, Gov Deal’s “conclusions” are strikingly similar to Reed’s.  “It’s nothing that we can’t fix with more taxpayer money and more control over your actions,” the Governor said, in not-so-many words.  Typical government answer, and actually, it’s the same statements that were issued after the last major ice storm in 2011 – which resulted in millions being spent on snow removal studies, people, and equipment – and apparently did little good.

It’s not just the chief executives that are covering their backsides and promising to “fix” things.  Nothing upsets parents more than not being able to get to their kids in a crisis.  Icy roads and the resulting traffic gridlock in Atlanta last week prevented buses from delivering children home and prevented parents from getting to the schools to pick up their children.  Ironically, in a town that is notorious for calling off school at the slightest possibility of frozen precipitation, most children were IN school last Tuesday when the ice storm started.  Schools were called off by hundreds of school systems across Georgia in the middle of the day.  Thousands of parents were contacted with the message that kids would be delivered home early, or simply needed to be picked up – somehow.  Obviously, parents became frustrated and angry that their children were stuck – and that THEY were stuck trying to get their children.  The blame began the same day.  “School should have been called off earlier,” some said.  “They should have never opened in the first place,” others said.

Really, most of these school administrators did the only thing that was reasonably appropriate at the times that decisions needed to be made.  The day before, the night before, and the morning of the storm there was NO precipitation falling.  The forecasts during this time tended to say that the system was to be primarily located SOUTH of Atlanta.  With that information available in the early morning hours, it was difficult to make any decision other than, “it’s a school day, let’s have school.”  The correct decision, in my book.  Too often, we’ve seen administrators cancel classes early – sometimes days early – in an overabundance of caution with only the slightest risk of hazardous conditions predicted.  This time, though, they didn’t – and it burned them.  But, in the aftermath, the CYA begins as school administrators and superintendents begin to apologize to their constituents (voters) for the right, but incorrect, decisions.

So, what did we really learn from the “Snowpocalypse of 2014?”  Or rather, what should we have learned?

1) No city or region will ever be fully prepared for every natural or man-made event that might happen.  Cities should prepare for things that pose great and regular risk to their communities – Tallassee should be good at evacuating from hurricanes, Buffalo should be good at plowing snow, but both cities will be wasting money planning for the other disaster, although, occasionally, either event COULD occur in either place.

2) When we choose to live 30, 40, 50, or more miles from where we work, things are going to happen occasionally that will prevent us from getting where we want to be on time.  Americans used to live on farms or in small towns and work and home were either the same property, or within walking distance of one another.  Urban dwellers in years past lived and worked in the same neighborhood.  We chose to live where we worked and work where we lived.  Not anymore.  Now we work in the city and live in the suburbs – which is fine, but we depend on our systems of automated transportation not to let us down – and sometimes, they will.  Ditto for where we send our kids to school.

3) Government will let us down, so we should be aware of our environments and work to become more self-reliant.  Understanding lessons number 1 and 2 above should also lead us to understand that no political organization, or decision making body, can, or should, be responsible for US.  WE need to decide when our children go to or stay home from school.  WE need to make our own observations about our surroundings and modify our daily schedules accordingly.  Bad weather will cause accidents and accidents will block traffic.  If we have 40 miles to drive, and traffic is blocked (or moving at 3 mph) then we may need to make alternate plans.  The government can’t fly you home, and may not even be able to remove whatever is blocking your path(s).

4) When we hold or leaders, “accountable” – BE CAREFUL!  The only things that any government can really do are to spend your money and restrict your freedom in an attempt to deliver what you’re asking for.  When subject to media scrutiny, politicians will come up with all kinds of policies that make them appear to be responsive.  Effectiveness of a policy is a distance second.   We can be assured; at least until this snow disaster is a distant memory, that schools will be cancelled for any type weather hazard – at least the frozen kind.  .  Political organizations are very quick to address the most recent problems, but aren’t very good at noticing other problems that have yet to be experienced.   Barn doors will be closed soon after the cows escape, but no one will notice fences that are missing.

Natural disasters are crucibles that test our systems and ourselves.  They expose many problems inherent in a society and a community – and they also create opportunities to show the best of what we’re capable of.  Too often, we allow normalcy, dependence, and the ease at which our lives normally operate to lull us to sleep.  We must stay awake and alert.  We must retain some of our American rugged individualism that has always allowed us to take care of ourselves and to make the best of difficult situations – without blaming those that we shouldn’t have depended on in the first place.

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