A Chance to Reevaluate Winter Storm Preparedness and Response

February 19th, 2014

By Crystal Schroeder, CHHS Extern

On the heels of Winter Storm Leon in Atlanta, Georgia, the city and surrounding counties put their emergency management plan into action for a three-day winter storm beginning February 10, 2014.  Comparing these two reactions demonstrates that emergency response is, at its core, a collection of decisions, each of which is made by balancing the costs, benefits, and implications of initiating emergency plans.  In making a particular decision, there is simultaneously the risk of under-reacting, and the risk of over-reacting to the situation at hand.  The decisions whether or not to close schools and businesses, to issue a state of emergency, or to restrict travel, for example, are balancing acts.

Winter Storm Leon, dubbed the “snowpocalypse,” crippled the Atlanta metro region on January 28, 2014, causing chaos, mass traffic jams, and immeasurable frustration with only two inches of snow.  The impact of an already hazardous meteorological event was intensified by primarily one failure: timing.

The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning, indicating life-threatening, severe winter conditions, for Atlanta in the early morning hours of January 28, twelve hours before the worst of the traffic.  The state’s emergency response center, however, was not activated for another six hours.  Schools remained in session, and employees travelled from the suburbs to work in the downtown commercial district.  The decision to delay initiation of the emergency response was arguably an under-reaction to the winter storm warnings.

Adding to the impact of the developing storm, authorities failed to stagger orders for residents to head home.  The result was hundreds of thousands of motorists driving the major Atlanta highway connector at the same time.  In retrospect, this decision also seems an under-reaction to the now-evident risk of overcrowding during an evacuation.

Early in the preparation and response to the second winter storm this year, it was evident that government officials and individual residents learned from Winter Storm Leon and adjusted their emergency plans – recognizing the risk of under-reacting to weather forecasts.   On February 10, officials were quick to make the decision to act as new warnings of winter weather surfaced.  Georgia Governor Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for almost one third of the state, cancelled school classes, told workers to stay home, opened an emergency operations center and held a news conference hours before the storm was predicted to hit the region.  Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed coordinated with school leaders and city officials to launch 120 pieces of equipment, spreading salt and sand, and plowing streets in anticipation of the storm.

The balancing act involved in making decisions to appropriately prepare for and respond to these meteorological events is a crucial aspect of emergency management planning.  An emergency management plan is a fluid document that must adjust as necessary to the threats at hand.

Although these large, powerful, and fast moving storms can cause dangerous conditions for residents regardless of preparation and response, officials are able to investigate past emergency decisions to improve future plans.  For example, with an eye on long-term emergency preparedness plan development, Governor Deal already announced the formation of a task force to study problems encountered during Winter Storm Leon, called for various reviews, and stated a desire to initiate a new public alert system for severe weather.  Likewise, CHHS works with organizations in Maryland, and across the country, to constantly exercise, evaluate, and refresh emergency plans.  Though it remains a constant challenge, agencies and organizations strive to reach the right balance in their decisions through thoughtful preparation and analysis of previous emergencies.




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