You may have heard that we’ve had a bit of snow here in Atlanta, accompanied by no small amount of chaos and controversy. My family got off easy on Tuesday: just three and a half hours in the car with our preschoolers to get through what is normally a 20-minute drive. Sounds bad, but many people spent five or six times that amount of time (up to 20+ hours) to go similar distances or to commute home from work, and lots of people were stranded in stores, fire stations, schools, and even in their cars on I-75 and other major highways. So when we heard how much our friends and neighbors endured, we were grateful to be together, safe and warm — that’s more than many people could say for much of the day Tuesday and even well into Wednesday.
Things went badly, badly wrong in Atlanta this week; and we are getting national attention as a result. Normally I don’t jump in the ring about this kind of stuff: I’m not an expert at urban planning or local politics. I write stories about love and relationships and the complexities between human beings, not traffic patterns and taxes. If you live in this area, you’re going to hear plenty of opinions in the coming days about what went wrong and why, most of it better informed and articulated than anything I can offer. If you don’t live here or have never lived here, it’s going to be hard for you to wrap your heads around how our city functions (or doesn’t, especially in snow) and why.
As I sat down this morning , however, to write a simple blog about walking in the snow, I realized that I do have some things to say. I have lived in and visited many places in my life, but this is my hometown, and I care about its people and our reputation, and I do want to contribute to making things better if I can.
For those in other places who are scratching your heads wondering how this kind of madness could happen, I honestly can’t give you an answer. I can, however, dispel a myth I hear a good bit. These catastrophes don’t happen here because the people who live here are somehow less competent — as drivers or as human beings — than people who live in other places. Despite what you’ve seen on Duck Dynasty and Honey Boo-Boo, Southerners as a whole are not stupid, nor are we equipped with less common sense than people from New York or Boston or Chicago. We have our village idiots, of course, but they don’t comprise a higher percentage of the population here than they do anywhere else. (You could make the argument that more of our village idiots find their way into politics or onto television, which may be part of the problem).
Honestly, it drives me crazy when people attribute the gridlock in Atlanta to the way people here drive. I’ve been in and around cars in Boston and Chicago and D.C. and Istanbul and London and San Francisco and DFW. People in Atlanta aren’t better or worse drivers than any other major city. We live in a poorly planned metropolitan area with unchecked suburban sprawl and politically hamstrung mass transit. Driving here is a nightmare, but it’s not because of the people behind the wheel. Even in snow.
Whenever we get winter weather, I hear a lot of people say how drivers can’t navigate snow and ice here because “they’re not used to it.” As though the sheet of ice on the hill is going to magically melt before the tires of a more experienced driver. “Oh, wait. You’re from Toronto? You may pass.”
I’m being facetious, of course. I’ll grant that inexperience on ice counts for something – particularly with young drivers who overestimate their ability to control what the car does. But what matters more than the skill of the driver? Sanded roads, flat roads, a four-wheel drive, snow chains, snow plows, and the emotional maturity to know when to stay home. All things more readily available in cities that get snow more than once a year. In fact, a large percentage of the Atlanta population, especially of those who work and commute to major businesses from the suburbs, come from other cities — largely in the North — so inexperience driving on snow only accounts for so much.
But the problem here isn’t the people – natives or transplants. It’s the system. We have a slow-moving system of government, weighted down by years of corruption, dirty politics, racial discord, and unresolved history. Our city and its suburban satellites have a hard time doing much of anything very efficiently, largely because too many decisions are made for short-term financial gain; or for emotional, fear-based or religious reasons, rather than a sense of what would be best for the city and all its residents in the long run. Our local media, like much of the media today, is more interested in entertaining people or finding new and interesting angles on boring news stories (“Look at the brand new snow plows they have in Clayton County!”) rather than serving public safety (“It really could snow hard today, so please stay home if you can.”) And this time we were all caught off guard – by a weather system that did worse than anyone predicted it would, and three hours earlier than anyone thought possible. Oops.
I may be wrong, but I believe part of our collective failure to take the warnings seriously comes from an inferiority complex Atlantans have developed about winter weather. Snow and other winter events are rare here – happening generally once a year for a single day, sometimes not even that. We are not well-prepared as individuals or as a community to handle these things, because it’s economically prohibitive to be so (though I think this week’s events highlight that we could do better, even with the little resources we have).
Because of our topography and weather patterns, it frequently happens here that a winter weather advisory turns out to be nothing. If schools and businesses do the wise thing by shutting down or delaying ‘just in case,’ and nothing happens, they get flack from the community, their shareholders, and even loudmouths in other cities. Not even a month ago, area school systems were forced to defend their decision to outraged parents when they closed down because of extreme cold temperatures (the buses couldn’t run reliably, many kids didn’t have weather-appropriate clothing for waiting outside) . All this reinforces the “staying home is for the weak” attitude, which is held by too many of us, especially business and community leaders.
We need governmental and systemic change, absolutely. A thousand things could improve the way we respond to winter storms: from sanding highways anytime there’s a threat of snow; to school systems automatically delaying or closing when daytime winter storms are possible; to disallowing tractor trailers to travel on our roads when it’s snowing or icing.
In my opinion, though, Atlanta should use this opportunity to learn a cultural lesson as well as a logistical one. Atlantans have a lot to learn from other cities’ best practices, for sure. But I think we need to change the mentality that we’re supposed to weather the cold the exact same way other cities do, to live up to some standard of ruggedness that makes no sense for our climate. We have to remove the correlation, in our own minds at least, between playing it safe with the lives of our citizens (keeping people home), and being viewed as a wimpy Southern city. We are not New York. As much as I love the Big Apple, I don’t think we should aspire to be New York in this respect. There’s a reason so many New Yorkers and
Chicagoans Chicagoites Chicagolanders Midwesterners have relocated here, and a big part of that is climate-related. So maybe let’s own the fact that if you live, work, or do business in Atlanta, once in a while you’re going to get put on hold for a weather event that may turn out to be nothing. The upside is, we won’t have to deal with it often and we’re going to make safety the priority; the downside, it will take a little longer to resolve when it does happen, and we’ll have to endure the laughing and pointing from our Northern neighbors.
I hope that the large businesses who have flocked to, and flourished in, Atlanta for its climate, culture, lower cost of living, and business-friendly tax policies will consider getting together to help solve this: Home Depot, Coca-Cola, UPS, Delta, IBM, Georgia Pacific, AT&T, Aflac, etc. Basically any company with its name on a tower in our town. In concert with one another, these super-large companies could work out some employee policies to err on the side of caution with winter weather, which would set the standard for middle- and small-sized companies to follow as well. Remove the financial pressure for people to get on the roads when it may not be safe, even if it means having to hold virtual meetings or make up the hours some other way. With more commuters home, not only will the roads be less congested for emergency and critical services, but the schools will feel less pressure to remain open for fear that kids will be home alone.
Aside from all the changes needed, I want to say this: If disasters bring out the flaws in our system, they also bring out the best in our citizens. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard from friends and family about people who helped push cars out of ditches or up hills to safety, people who came out of their homes to give food and water to stranded drivers, who opened their homes and businesses of all sizes to help others stay warm. Teachers and lunch ladies and doctors and retail workers who spent the night away from their own families to stay with stranded children and drivers. Our niece’s teacher who walked a mile in the snow with her because my sister-in-law couldn’t make it all the way to the school. My friend’s father who spent hours delivering a bus load of special needs children to their homes, all over the city. Not to mention all the public servants — fire fighters, police officers, DOT employees, first responders — who worked some incredibly long and arduous hours this week.
I walked two miles yesterday to the pharmacy for some medicine for Fozzie Bear, and along the way I talked to neighbors and exchanged information with other walkers and drivers I might otherwise never have met. I even caught a ride for part of the way with two people who had not known each other until this storm but were trying to help one another get home. When you look past the outrage at what has happened in our town, what you will see (and feel) here is a sense that we are all in this together. Sometimes it takes an event like this to make us notice the people around us every day, to realize how important our relationships are with one another and how much we take for granted (see? I always manage to bring it back to relationships somehow).
We are 5.6 million diverse and opinionated citizens,with different stories and different goals. We are also 5.6 million neighbors, friends and members of the same imperfect, but loving, community. As we move forward from this event in healing and learning, I hope we can carry some of that spirit with us into the seasons ahead.
I’m M.J. (Manda) Pullen, an author and mom in the Atlanta, Georgia area. I blog with humor and honesty about writing, publishing, parenthood, life in general and the many lessons I’ve learned the hard way. If you enjoy reading this blog, please sign up for the RSS or sign up for my monthly updates here (and enter the monthly giveaway). Thanks for reading, commenting and sharing!
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