Thursday, January 13, 2011

How Could Five Inches of Snow Shut a City Down?

For those of you wondering why five inches of snow followed by a day of sleet and a week of freezing temperatures brought Atlanta traffic to a halt. This video clip of Peachtree ST. tells a pieced of the tale:

The weather guessers predicted that we would get a heavy snow on Sunday night/Monday Morning, and then we would be battered with freezing rain/sleet and temps in the 20s and teens.

Well, they were spot on with their prediction. It began snowing before midnight and by Monday morning we had five inches of snow. By sunrise, the sleet was coming down so hard it sounded like some one was throwing gravel at the windows of the house.

The roads and highways ended up with a solid sheet of ice about 3/4 of an inch to an inch thick. So all the schools cancelled school on Monday and all of the businesses told their employees to stay home. The Georgia DOT requested everyone stay off the roads and tried to ask truckers to avoid Atlanta. That went over like a rotund gentleman trying to pole vault. Within 24 hours there were sections of I-75, I-85, I-285, I-20 and GA 400 littered with wrecked cars and jack-knifed semis.

Tuesday came and again schools and businesses cried "Uncle" and everyone waited for the DOT to get the roads cleared. I-285 was closed below I-20 due to the amount of ice and the amount of jack-knifed semis making it impassable. DOT could not try to remove the ice until the semis were removed. Estimates of hundreds of semis stranded on the ice were reported on the news.

Wednesday came with the schools once again taking a pass, but many business elected to open with delayed hours calling their employees in around noon. For many, this would be their first venture out on the roadways around the city since Sunday evening.

My commute typically takes one hour, so I set out two hours early to provide plenty of time. Before setting off, I made certain I had a full tank of fuel, a pair of hiking boots, and some extra clothing along for the trip in case of trouble.

The first 15 miles looked promising as both of the south bound lanes of the highway were clear and traffic was moderate pacing a good 20 mph slower than the posted speed limit. But then at the county line, the condition of the highway quickly changed. Suddenly one lane was basically clear and the other lane 3/4 plowed. Then it would go to just tire tracks instead of a plowed lane.

When we arrived at the section of the highway where it widens to four lanes going south, one lane on the far right and one lane on the far left were plowed while the two center lanes were still five inches thick covered in a hard ice shell. The far left lane routinely would go from being plowed wide enough to drive with left and right wheels on hard asphalt to rigtt wheels on asphalt, left wheels bouncing over varying heights of the snow/ice mixture.

All along the route were abandoned vehicles on the shoulder of the road. Some were damaged, some were not. There were pieces of bumper covers sitting just off the edge of the path of traffic to break up the color scheme of the snow.

My typical one hour commute took all two hours I had allotted. Many of my co-workers depend on public transportation to get to work. They quickly discovered that the MARTA train system was running but the buses were not. That prevented many from answering the return to work call on Wednesday. Those that did make it in reported similar road conditions on I-75 and I-85 to my highway experiences.

Today, the schools once again took the pass option and announced, they would just wait and resume school Tues after MLK Day. Many businesses returned to regular scheduled hours. Meantime the Georgia DOT is still saying, "If you do not have to be on the roadways, please stay home."

Surprising to some, absolutely nothing had been done to the highway this morning compared to Wednesday morning. Many thought the plows would have been out Wed night/Thurs morning to improve the roads for the exponential growth of commuters being called back to work. But apparently, Georgia DOT had other ideas. My co-workers reported that the interstates had not had any additional plowing or additional lanes re-opened compared to Wednesday as well.

The weather guessers are calling for temps above freezing on Friday (in the 40s for the high), so maybe DOT is just waiting for mother nature to fix the problem.

Having worked projects in Michigan in the dead of winter and having visited Kansas in the dead of winter, I happen to know that proactive treatment of roadways, plowing the snow off and spreading sand/salt mixture prior to the sleet/Freezing rain typically prevents the mess we have seen this week. But, the head of Georgia DOT has stated on the news that it was a huge storm and no one could predict it, except every weather forecaster on every news channel did predict it. And, he says that his department has done an exemplary job of keeping the roadways clear. I wonder what roadways he has in mind.

I suggest to anyone who currently works for a state DOT that maintains winter roads in a section of the U.S. that regularly receives snow and ice conditions during winter to contact the Georgia DOT and offer your consulting services. I would think you could make good money.


Jack Riepe said...

Dear Mr. Madding:

I have not lived in Atlnta, but I have passed through the place. From an outsider's perspective, I think the problem first lies with the infrequency that crippling winter weather hits the city, and the cost of maintaining the substantial equipment for routinely dealing with it.

Secondly, ice is a tough one — even for winter storm veterans. In a place like Atlanta, my guess is 3 drivers in a 1,000 have practical experience in driving in it. And every asshole with a 4-wheel-drive unit has to get out in the bad weather to wreck their car, and yours.

Finally, there needs to be a better winter emergency plan in which the state and the city can engage private contracters in a proactive attempt to open the roads.

I spent 18 years living in far upstate New York. A foot of snow would barely close the schools in our town. But in 1998, an ice storm knocked out electricity and telephone service from Montreal to Albany — for 3 weeks!

It happens. With luck, warmer weather will play a greater role in getting your streets and highways open.

Fondest Regards,
Jack • reep • Toad
Twisted Roads

Mike said...

It sounds like Portland and Atlanta have something in common. It only takes about two inches of snow to mess us up though. And that's taking into account that we usually get snow every year in some form. You guys have been getting hammered though. Hope you get to the 40's tomorrow. Stay safe!

Mr. Motorcycle said...

Quite a site!. I didn't even know it got that cold there.

RichardM said...

Our schools have never been closed due to cold temperatures or snow but everything shut down for several days due to unseasonably warm temperatures and freezing rain. That was almost a month and a half ago and many roads still have a thick layer of ice on it. Fortunately, once it gets really cold again, the traction on the ice is almost as good as pavement. This isn't true for intersections as the highway department must have a bunch of Zambonis to polish them.

+1 to Jack Riepe's comment about everyone in their "unstoppable" SUV. Actually on ice unstoppable is part of the problem.


Allen Madding said...

reep - I have seen a lot of unstoppable SUVs in ditches and sitting on their roofs this week. 4-wheel drive is nice and all until all four wheels are locked and sliding down hill, then its all the same!

Mike - we did make the 40s and even better, they decided to finish scraping the remaining lanes in the wee hours this morning. So, at 6 am I found a nice start to my morning (after 2 hours to get home last night).

MM - its funny, we usually get a couple snows a winter but usually in February. This year we had a white Christmas for the first time in 80 some odd years. It must be the Goresyndrome thingy.

Richard - I never cease to learn something from you. I never knew the highway dept owned Zambonis. How cool is that?

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Mr. Maddng:

At the risk of sounding really stupid, I had no idea Atlanta got a couple of snows each winter. I thougfht you were too far south for that.

Fondest regards,
Jsack • reep • Toad
Twisted Roads

Abby said...

I grew up in New England, spent 10 years in Atlanta and north Georgia and now live in Colorado. Nothing surprises me anymore.

When I first moved to Colorado, I was in Summit County, which is on I-70 up in the mountains. I had no idea that there were places in the United States that the Interstate was closed regularly - almost daily. I learned that my Toyota with good snows and no ego could make it further than an SUV any day, but I wasn't without my own bad judgment. If the tunnel is closed, don't go over the mountain that the tunnel is cutting through. Getting to Denver for Friday evening fun and games is not worth that sliding backwards sensation on a Rocky Mountain precipice.

I hope your weather has cleared up and the ice is melting.

Unknown said...

Unbelievable! I left on the 1st for the Caribbean just after the end of the year snow storm hit NY, came back on the 11th and that night we had another snow storm, I'm already sick of this winter + my bike's battery died :-(

Allen Madding said...

Abby - my hat is off to you. I don't mind driving in snow. I got a good introduction to in in my first stint in Atlanta, the ice however, I'm not a fan of at all.

You've lived in some climates I'd just as soon avoid. Colorado is gorgeous, but I could not withstand the winters. I am getting quickly tired of it here. I keep hearing Jimmy Buffet, "I need to go where its warm"

GeorgeF - I'm right there with ya brother. I am sick of winter and have a couple more months to go. Sorry to hear about the motorcycle battery. Don't you wish Optima made motorcycle batteries?


irondad said...

Having been in Atlanta during a hot and rainy July it is hard to visualize what you are describing!

Two hours to work and two hours back makes for a really long day, doesn't it?

Webster World said...

I lived north of Atanta. Showed up for work one morning my boss calls. I answer the phone and he said "Why I knew it. You dumb yankees don't know when to stay home. You can get a ticket for driving in this."