To get to the root of the mild panic Atlanta experienced last week at the mere mention of snow, you need only look back a few years when a lousy 2½ inches of the white stuff wreaked absolute havoc on our city.
To review, a week ago Monday the city of Atlanta and other local municipalities preemptively shut down. Officials canceled school, state lawmakers took the day off and state government offices were closed without a flake in sight. The forecast called for the possibility of snow Tuesday.
It never came.
Jan. 28, 2014 was another story. I was working from home that afternoon when it started snowing. As I prepared to close up shop for the day, I pulled up an Atlanta traffic map on the computer and saw nothing but red all the way around the Perimeter, up and down the Downtown Connector and out Interstate 20.
It literally looked like the city was suffering a heart attack. It kind of did.
Those two inches, however, fail to rank in the top 20 snowfalls in Atlanta history. The most snow in what we’ll call the modern era — 1928 to today — was 8.3 inches in 1940. The second most is my all-time favorite snow day.
In order to tell that story, though, we have to look a little further down the list to No. 8, Jan. 12, 1982, known far and wide as the original Snow Jam.
On that day four inches of snow fell across metro Atlanta. The city — albeit significantly less populated but already struggling with traffic — suffered a complete breakdown. Most commuters left their offices early to get ahead of the rush-hour traffic, but with freezing temperatures and falling snow, the roads were covered in ice almost immediately.
It is a well-known fact Atlantans can’t drive in the rain, much less the snow. Ice and snow? Impossible.
There were car accidents on top of car accidents on top of car accidents. Vehicles were abandoned on the sides of the roads. People walked miles to get to their homes. While there was a thaw the next day, the next evening it froze again. Sheets of ice covered Atlanta. Many went days without power.
This was in 1982, a good 32 years before the events of 2014.
I don’t recall my father’s story from that day, but it must have been a doozy. A few days later, after things returned to normal, shiny new snow chains appeared in the garage, hanging on the wall next to where he parked his car.
The next year, it dumped snow in Atlanta in March. We got 7.9 inches overnight. It ranks as the second largest accumulation, again going back to 1928.
In those days, it was up to the local broadcast networks to report the school closings. There was no phone call. With the first flakes falling in the darkness, we watched the TV intently, waiting for The Lovett School to scroll across the bottom of the screen.
Eventually, it did. This time, though, we were prepared. Along with the snow chains, there were three sleds for my brothers and me in the basement, bought after Snow Jam, when we had to sled on my mother’s pans. She had already hit the Big Star grocery store and stocked up on soup, saltine crackers, bread and milk.
We sledded until our toes froze, but those snow chains stayed on the wall in the garage. They hung there for a decade, maybe longer.
That is the story of Atlanta.
The reaction to 1982 was swift. By the next year, we were ready. But over time, the memory faded like a snowflake on an above-freezing road.
By the time it happened again, most people acted as if it had never happened before.
But it happens. Without rhyme or reason, every once in a while, Atlanta gets a decent dollop of snow, sometimes even more than two inches.