Winter Storm Leon Causes Massive Traffic Problems in the Deep South: Who’s to Blame?


Home / Winter Storm Leon Causes Massive Traffic Problems in the Deep South: Who’s to Blame?
Cars abandoned in Aatlanta. Photo courtesy of NOAA

Cars abandoned in Aatlanta. Photo courtesy of NOAA

Unprepared. Everyone says Atlanta was unprepared for winter storm Leon. But what does ‘unprepared’ mean?

Anticipating Natural Events and Wild Weather

Some things are statistically predictable.  All you have to do is look at the records of the past.

  • California has had twelve magnitude seven earthquakes in the last century.
  • Twenty-six major hurricanes (category three or higher) have struck Florida in the past 100 years.
  • Since the year 2000, New York City has received over 20 inches of snow in three different storms.

Statistics are not always a reliable guide to the future. But it would be foolish indeed for public officials not to enact strict building codes in California and Florida, or for New York not to have plows and sanding equipment at the ready. But what about the deep south? Should Atlanta have been prepared for snow?

On March 24, 1983, eight inches of snow fell in Atlanta. On January 12, 1982, less than six inches of snow paralyzed the city. Those are the only times in the past 60 years that Atlanta has gotten over five inches of snow in one storm. Yet the city received more than three and a half inches on eight other occasions. The conclusion is that small amounts of snow are not uncommon in Atlanta. So you would think the city would be prepared. And they are — somewhat. The city, with a population of over four million, owns ten snow plows.

The Warnings of an Impending Storm

At about two in the morning on Jan. 28, 2014, The National Weather Service posted a warning about significant snow in Atlanta. The Governor says he was sleeping and didn’t react. People went to work; children went to school. By midday it was apparent that the warning was prescient. It was snowing and the forecast was ominous. Someone made the decision to tell everyone to go home. Some of them hadn’t gotten there yet.

Who’s to Blame? Culprit #1: The Weather

An unusual situation developed in the deep south that doesn’t happen in the north, where the ground is cold, even frozen, most of the winter. The temperature of surfaces in Atlanta was well above freezing; the normal maximum temperature at this time of year is 50 degrees. The frigid air mass that invaded, courtesy of the polar vortex, plunged air temperatures into the twenties about the time it started to snow. The result was that the snow melted on contact with the warm road surfaces, then froze in the arctic air, creating ice-slick roads. That would have been enough to cause traffic problems for Atlanta residents unaccustomed to such conditions even if traffic were light.

Atlanta Weather Problem Culprit #2: The Exodus

It’s not clear if official notifications were made to schools and businesses to close, or if everyone just decided to leave at once, but the fact that everybody tried to get home at the same time assured a massive tie-up. Plows cannot do their job if the traffic is not moving, and even the ten plows that Atlanta owns could have made a difference on uncongested roadways.

Frozen Roads Culprit #3: Unpreparedness

Well, yes, Atlanta was unprepared. But what could officials have done to prepare? The best answer is: salt. The ocean is three percent salt and freezes at 28 degrees; a 10% salt solution freezes at 20 degrees; a 20% salt solution freezes at two degrees. The lesson? Add enough salt and the roads will be ice-free. This is why 22 million tons of salt are spread on American roadways annually.

Salt is a natural substance, and though it is not as harmful as chemical pollutants, it has environmental implications. Increased salt levels in lakes and streams is an issue where salt is liberally used on roads. But for an occasional snowstorm in Atlanta, salt seems preferable to traffic standing still.


Foresight and Freezing Weather

Of course, it takes some foresight to keep the roads at least passable enough for the salt trucks to get through. Not encouraging everyone onto the roads is a good idea for the next snowy night in Georgia.

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