Atlanta natives are used to the not-so-good-natured ribbing we get for closing schools over the occasional dusting of snow. We take it in stride with the smug knowledge that no one, anywhere can drive on black ice, especially along the hilly and curved thoroughfares. That is why I am usually one to defend our civic leadership for taking unfair criticism about how they deal with adverse weather events.
Everything that the nearly 6 million Atlantans experienced this week was both predictable and avoidable. That is what makes the C.Y.A., excuse-filled press conferences by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia Governor Nathan Deal both infuriating and insulting.
Let me be clear: Disasters happen. They are defined by chaos, and unpredictable elements do arise. Yet a good disaster plan covers a wide range of imagined scenarios and is nimble enough to shift with ground zero realities. For the last 20 years, a substantial portion of my public relations practice has been in service to corporations on matters of terrorist attacks, national disaster, e-coli outbreaks, child sexual abuse and garden variety negligence. What I can tell you from this experience is that disaster response is directly proportional to disaster preparedness.
That includes statements to the media. In the midst of crisis, prepared, effective leadership knows that no matter how many questions are being fired at you from the media and all manner of stakeholders, you are not expected to know the details of what went wrong and why. The tale of the tape is always told in the post-game conferences. In the first 24 hours, there are the only three things Mayor Reed and Governor Deal should have said:
1. Your questions will be answered in full. We also want to know what went wrong, including our own mistakes, but...
2. ...Right now, our first concern is getting the children, elderly and injured to safety and providing assistance to stranded motorists, and...
3. ...Here are the resources we are deploying to make that happen.
What you do not do is blame the people who are stuck in their cars on the highway in freezing temperatures for leaving work "at the same time" or for "clogging up emergency lanes" because their cars slid off the road or broke down -- because that's where they are supposed to move their vehicles if they break down.
Ah, but there's the rub. It was painfully evident in the early hours of the disaster that neither Mayor Reed nor Governor Deal could manage constituent expectations because that would require an adequate disaster plan which, would have not only lessened the severity of the event, but would have included the deployment of highly visible emergency assets as well as talking points beyond the blame game.
Instead, Reed and Deal blamed the weather for surprising them and the people for getting in the way of the sand trucks and officers. What an outrageous insult to every parent separated from a child, and every motorist who had been stuck in their cars for eight, 12, 16, 20 hours or more with no food, water or blankets.
The cause of this entirely preventable disaster was neither the shifting weather nor the entirely predictable volume of motorists. This disaster was engineered by a failure to plan and communicate. The failures were so obvious and fundamental that I daresay Atlanta's "#SnowJam2014" will become a Crisis 101 case study on what not to do.
Here are the five things that Mayor Reed and Governor Deal could have easily done to prevent the magnitude of this crisis:
1. Deploy equipment in advance to pre-treat the roads at the first precipitation, before the mass exit began.
2. As the weather conditions changed (as reported in the early morning hours), make the call at 10:00 a.m. and communicate with schools, businesses and governments to stagger the exit of the city.
3. Deploy school buses at 11:00 a.m. to pick children up at school by noon and take them to pre-determined collection centers easily accessed by parents. Schools have plans for such logistics and communications in the event of mass shootings. Coordinate with the plans in place.
4.) Pre-station state troopers, city police and sheriffs deputies along the highway, at major intersections and medical/school/logistical centers to maintain traffic flow and to reduce adverse incidents
5.) Utilize highway CCTV network to rapidly deploy State National Guard to rescue stranded school buses and motorists -- provide water, blankets, food and assistance, even transportation to shelters as needed.
Had these five strategies been employed, the traffic would surely have been bad, some accidents would have happened, but the epic stranding of motorists for up to 20 hours would not have happened.
Reed and Deal should not be have touted the fact that no one died and that they started holding press conferences on the first day into the disaster as success factors. Children were stranded in school buses for eight to 12 hours without food, water, blankets or bathrooms. People were stranded on the highway for more than 20 hours. There was no success.
The significance of this massive government failure is that this was a relatively small adverse weather event. What if this had been a real disaster? Atlanta is a strategic target. It is home to the busiest airport on the planet, several vital military installations and the Centers for Disease Control. Our city has a high concentration of the biggest corporations on the planet as well as non-governmental agencies that act in hotspots around the globe. Since September 11, 2001, every major city was supposed to have a muli-platform, cross-jurisdictional crisis plan that is updated regularly as demographics and community resources and assets shift.
Clearly, Atlanta is a city without a plan.