A midday winter storm struck Atlanta’s metro population of nearly 6 million on Tuesday. By early afternoon, hundreds of thousands of commuters had taken to the streets, all at once, in a desperate effort to get home. At the same time school systems dismissed an army of students, many on buses. Government got into the act too, telling workers to hit the road.
But by the time everyone started out, what began as flurries became several inches of snow on the highways and streets of a metropolitan area known for its myriad of highways and byways, as well as a general inability of its residents to drive in snow.
The result was pure panic and chaos. Large trucks started to slide and block most major roads. Many cars were disabled, or worse, involved in accidents that clogged emergency lanes. Tens of thousands of motorists were stuck in traffic, many for more than 10 hours.
Throughout the night, parents searched for children, many of whom who were forced to spend the evening at school. Desperate motorists found cell towers overloaded and cell phones dying.
While state, county and municipal governments all seemed helpless, public citizens took matters into their own hands. As government stumbled, one person on Facebook formed a site known as “SnowedOutAtlanta” where stranded citizens could post their desperate needs and others near them could offer to provide shelter, food or even come to their rescue. Within hours, tens of thousands had joined in the effort. It was an amazing testament to what big government can’t do and what “we the people” can get done.
Ironically, this was all taking place as President Obama was threatening Congress, in his State of the Union, to use executive powers to get around them to expand government even more. While many Atlantans remained stuck in cars as the sun rose on Wednesday, Obama was off on a tour of other states touting his newest big government gimmicks.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s incumbent Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta’s Democrat Mayor Kasim Reed were holding disastrous press conferences in which Reed was openly combative with reporters and Deal seemed mixed up on his meteorology and what the warnings actually were for the storm.
Perhaps the worst of this political theater came when Georgia’s director in charge of emergency response, in front of his boss, told the press that an emergency had yet to emerge Tuesday afternoon as vehicles were stalling and colliding all over the place. That sent Georgia’s governor racing to the microphones to disagree with his own director, who clearly let his leader down.
No doubt the political finger pointing will continue for weeks, if not months to come. And for Deal, who faces a re-election challenge from the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, state Sen. Jason Carter, the timing could not be worse.
To their credit, both Reed and Deal ultimately apologized for various aspects of the response to the storm. And to be fair, because of the area’s unusual location and weather patterns, Atlantans are often given dire predictions of winter weather, only to learn at the last moment that not a single flake of snow will fall.
The lesson learned from this episode, which will likely cost a fortune in insurance claims, out-of-pocket expenses and costs for government efforts at responding, is that we should never fully rely on government to solve all of our problems.
In the case of Atlanta, the official storm warning was issued long before daybreak on Tuesday. Corporations, schools and government entities could have simply said “stay home.” They did not.
So once a crisis arose, private citizens did what government could not. They rolled up their sleeves quickly, used modern technology and with caring hearts took on Mother Nature’s mess.
No speeches were made. No staff or palace guards stood between those in need and those who wanted to help. And no taxes were required.
Once again, it was individual citizens who saved the day.
Matt Towery heads the polling and political information firm InsiderAdvantage.