Monday, February 3, 2014

The Great Snowmageddonpocalypse of 2014

Headed out to get milk and bread to make milk sandwiches
NOTE: As I post this article it is 72 outside. A week ago at this exact moment it was about 22.

I live in South Carolina, in a small town about 50 miles west/southwest of the great city of Charleston. However, I am not from here. I'm one of those dreaded types referred to politely by most as a transplant and derisively by others as a Damnyankee, because I moved here from Up North. I moved here 13 years ago from central Maine because in part I was sick of long brutal winters.

I don't miss the snow, the slush, the ice, the subzero cold, the scheduling of deliveries of heating oil, the chipping away every morning with an ice scraper, dodging snow plows, clearing the driveway with a snowblower (or worse just a shovel), the salt & sand...I simply don't miss it. I remember it all too well.

There's a reason that so many of us moved south, and it wasn't just for the sweet tea and grits.

Many of my southern born & bred lifelong residents of Dixie are funny about winter. They loathe the cold and at the first sign of temperatures dipping below 55 break out the UGG boots and ski parkas and yet get all excited with a giddy glee at the thought of snow. To them, snow is this beautiful thing seen on TV but seldom if ever experienced except for an occasional stray flurry. As such, a couple of interesting things happen when the threat of winter weather looms on the horizon. Some of them hope & pray for it while others fly into an absolute sheer panic and scramble pell mell to empty the shelves of the local stores in a mad dash for milk and bread, ostensibly to make milk sandwiches. Transplants howl with laughter and snort in derision, citing the grand litany of storms they've survived and how people here wouldn't know what to do in a real winter situation.

Well, we just found out.

As a prelude, we had what the media puppets parroted all over TV and radio, the new two-word catch phrase purposely contrived for sound bytes: POLAR VORTEX. How is it I've lived damn near 45 years, most of them in cold weather climates, without ever having heard of an arctic blast of air called a Polar Vortex? Well, this jetstream of frozen air hit my area and I admit that I'm guilty of having laughed when the local schools were on a two-hour delay because it was simply going to be cold. No snow, no sleet, no ice, just cold. Yes, it was indeed mother-effing cold, but my first thought was that the very notion of kids shivering in the cold waiting for the bus was too much for tender sensibilities, despite the fact that maybe 5% of kids actually stand at the bus stop. The rest either are driven to the bus stop by their parents where they sit in a warm car till the bus arrives, or the bus stops in front of their house and they make a mad dash for it, exposed for maybe 20 seconds to Mother Gaia's harsh embrace.

Turns out the school system was actually worried their decrepit fleet of school buses either wouldn't start in the cold or that the frigid air would have frozen the condensation in their brake lines. And since we pile 60 kids at a whack into a box with no airbags or seat belts, well I guess brakes had best work.

And now two weeks later, that pesky Vortex was back, colliding with a front out of the south to create Snowmadeddonpocalypse, or so the meteorologists would have us believe. They called for snow and ice and freezing rain and sleet and polar air. They early-released or just plain canceled schools not just for Tuesday, when the storm was set to reach us after 3PM, but also for Wednesday and at the very least had delays into Thursday. Naturally, transplants scoffed and locals panicked. My cousin in North Carolina posted a picture of empty shelves at a local store. Even I got in on the humor and made my own meme picture poking fun. I still didn't think anything was going to hit us.

My cousin posted this on Facebook

Yes, it was perhaps unkind of me to do this.

Then it started to rain. And it started to freeze.

Like I said, I've been through this sort of thing before. Back in January of  '98 the northeast was hit with an ice storm the likes of which I'd never seen. We lost power and didn't get it back for 56 hours. That's a long time in January in Bangor, Maine with no power. My inlaws who lived outside the city didn't just lose power, because with no power their water pumps to their wells froze so they had no water either. My neighbor had a 3,000 watt generator and once he ran a cable to his breaker box to give himself heat and lights, he ran one to his upstairs neighbor's furnace and over across the driveway to the breaker for my furnace. Thus, I had heat. And I was on city water, not a well, so I had running water, and my hot water heater wasn't electric. It was gas, as was my stove. So, while I had no lights or TV I had running hot water and I could still cook hot food. My house became the emergency shelter for family with no other options. Some people didn't get power back for nearly 3 weeks. It was insane.

Less than a mile from my house in Bangor, Maine during the Ice Storm of 98

So, when I poked my head out the door a couple hours into the night and found my stairs and railing frozen over I became concerned myself, because this was actually happening here and I knew that our local infrastructure, while not completely unprepared, simply wasn't designed for severe winter weather. We have plows & spreader trucks and salt and sand, but not in the vast quantities you take for granted up north. Our power lines aren't made to handle the extra weight of ice. Hell, our tree branches snap under ice weight. I was seriously worried about power loss, and my heat & hot water is all electric here.

The people of Austin, Texas and the people of Florida took the storm with a dash of humor. I loved it.

Turns out that the greater Charleston area fared rather well with the relatively small amount of ice and snow we got. I initially joked about closing the schools but it was actually a very shrewd move, because when the precip hit, the kids were already at home and most businesses had already shut down and sent their people home early. People judiciously stayed off the streets and hunkered down. All in all, the local minicipalities successfully weathered the storm. Not so in other locations. Not so by a long shot.

Atlanta traffic sucks on a good day. This was NOT a good day.

Abandoned vehicles littering an Atlanta area highway

Stranded kids sleeping on a school gym floor

Stranded people sleeping on the floor at CVS drugstore

Stranded people at a Publix grocery store

It took approximately 2.3 inches of snow to shut down a city of four million people. As the capital of Georgia, Atlanta is the 9th largest metro area in the country and is certainly no stranger to occasional winter weather, but this storm absolutely gridlocked and stranded hundreds of thousands. It took some people 7 hours to go 30 miles, and they were the lucky ones. People up and abandoned their vehicles and walked to relative safety. Others weathered the storm inside their vehicles. There were kids trapped in school buses and parents trapped in their cars. Some kids and teachers remained trapped in their schools overnight. People slept on the floors at grocery stores. Reports compared the roadways packed with abandoned cars & trucks to the opening credits of The Walking Dead, with the accompanying internet memes.

The Mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, and the Governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal, are being crucified for the deterioration of the situation into something that looked like the mass exodus scenes in The Day After Tomorrow. The Governor should have had the National Guard already deployed, and the rest of it as far as I'm concerned falls on Reed and other local  municipal wonks who sat on their thumbs in much the same manner that Ray "Chocolate City" Nagin sat on his thumb until it was too late in New Orleans for Katrina. Oh, and  Governor Kathleen Blanco, who sat on her thumb instead of having the National Guard in place. Actually, Governor Deal shouldn't have really needed to deploy the Guard if Atlanta hadn't immediately melted into a goatscrew. You call out the Guard in blizzards, not for less than three inches of snow that you knew for a week had been coming. You learned NOTHING from Katrina.

What do I mean? I mean that you morons knew the storm was coming. You had ample warning. But instead of doing the judicious thing and closing schools and keeping those thousands off the roads, they all let out at once. Seemingly, every door in Atlanta, both school and business alike, opened at the same second and spewed forth millions into the storm. That was just stupid. The smarter plan would have been to just close the schools early and advise everyone else to just stay the hell home.

If we had a Republican in the White House they'd be blaming him (or her) for the Atlanta gridlock like they blamed Bush for Katrina when it was squarely on Nagin and Blanco's shoulders.

The Democrat Governor of Louisiana (Kathleen Blanco) and the Democrat Mayor of New Orleans (Ray Nagin) screwed up Katrina. Bush sent in FEMA afterwards, like he was supposed to do, and FEMA had to pick up the pieces the idiots in charge left behind. FEMA is a small, low-staffed group that MANAGES the emergency afterwards...

And really, let's take a longer look at Katrina, shall we? FEMA, whom I did criticize afterwards for their bad handling of the relief trailers, is a MANAGEMENT agency not a direct action group. Y'know, the best way to explain this is to directly quote author John Ringo from his most excellent book The Last Centurion:

There were not tens of thousands of dead. There were no riots or rapes in the Superdome and people were neither starving nor "out of water." They were being rationed, which the fuckers that were complaining thought was starving, but that's not the same thing. But let's look at the Evacuation Plan.

Okay, Nagin was a total fuck-up and never even tried to initiate it. He'd never looked at it, despite a fucking hurricane being headed for his city which, by the way, was below sea level. So calling him a fuck-up is insulting fuck-ups. But there was a Plan.

The Plan was to use school and city buses to evacuate all those who were "transportation challenged." Whether Nagin used it or not was sort of a moot point, though. People had forgotten little details. Such as, there was no emergency call list for the drivers.

In any group that does emergency response, from the military to cops and even including child services, there is a call list. Generally it's a call tree. Person at the top gets a call. He or she calls three people, then starts getting ready to head in. Those people call two or three people lower than them and start getting ready. Assuming more or less equal transportation distances, the bosses get to work first, which helps in most cases.

There was no such phone tree for bus drivers. So there was no real way for anyone to get ahold of them in an emergency. Oops.

Drivers had never been told that they were supposed to drive people out in an emergency. So they weren't exactly sitting by the phone if there had been a phone tree. They had jobs and cars. They were packing to leave or already gone.

And that was the last point. The order to get out was sent out before any thought was given at all to the "transportation challenged" plan and even the evacuation order was more of a bow to reality; the roads out of New Orleans were packed (by among other things the bus drivers) when it was given…

… Look, in a local major disaster like that, FEMA wasn't even supposed to be up and running for seventy-two hours. Three days. That was after they were requested by local authorities. But on day two, hell with the skies barely clearing, people were asking "Where is FEMA?"

FEMA doesn't actually have all that many full-time employees. Disasters, by their very definition, don't occur all the fucking time. So most of its response specialists are contractors who do other things, or are retired and hang out, waiting for the next response.

They had to be called in. People had to go in and find areas to set up. It takes time. Even then, they don't do most of the work. They coordinate the work. More contractors, and military, and local government do the actual work. Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Asking "where is FEMA" in a disaster is like asking "Why aren't the managers here?"
The managers are important, don't get me wrong. But they don't get the bodies cleared.

So the lesson here really should be early prep and choosing to err on the side of caution if indeed you're errant. Maybe the Charleston area could be called overly cautious, but after being whacked hard in 1989 by Hurricane Hugo they tend to be pretty cautious about weather around here. And in this case, it worked successfully. Yes, bridges were closed and that stranded some people who couldn't cross over between Charleston and Mount Pleasant, but the numbers of stranded people were infinitesimally smaller than those stranded in Atlanta, even on a per capita percentage basis. We saw it coming, and we hunkered down early.

Fingers are, of course, being pointed and rightly so. I simply don't get how Deal can say with a straight face that the storm came unexpectedly, when I knew five days previously that snow was coming and where it was coming from. Maybe no one bothered to tell him it was coming?

"I've gotten the message loud and clear and I'm going to act like it and do something about it," Mayor Kasim Reed told reporters. Reed said he would be more aggressive in handling any future events, even if that means using his bully pulpit to persuade others not under his authority to act. "I'm going to publicly say that the city of Atlanta is closing and we believe everybody in the city should close right away..."

At a Thursday news conference, the director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency acknowledged having made "a terrible error in judgment" in not opening the emergency operations center six hours earlier than he did.

Charley English said he first talked to the governor about how serious the situation was becoming, particularly around metro Atlanta, as the forecast shifted at 9 or 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. This was some six hours after meteorologists upgraded to a winter storm warning.

"I got this one wrong," he said. "I made the decision not to do anything until later that morning."

Yeah...sounds like no one was telling the guy at the top what was going on, but I'd also like to think this dude occasionally watches the news and weather.

 "I accept responsibility for the fact that we did not make preparation early enough to avoid these consequences," Deal said. "... I'm not looking for a scapegoat. I'm the governor, the buck stops with me."

Speaking later Thursday with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Deal said "we all made errors in judgment" and that "the major lesson is we have to be more proactive." According to the governor, that means taking action like declaring a state of emergency earlier on -- even if it ends up being a false alarm, relatively -- and making sure the resources are available to deal with such a crisis.

I'll believe it when I see it.

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