ATLANTA (AP) — The motorists stranded for hours on Atlanta's highways by a winter storm could be forgiven for asking a simple question: How could this happen again?
Three years before the latest winter storm struck metro Atlanta and left thousands of people stuck this week, the region's leaders got a taste of how a few inches of snow and ice could cripple transportation networks.
Lessons from that storm were incorporated into a statewide snow and ice plan issued in 2013 by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. Portions of that plan are likely to be revamped as government leaders have promised to study what worked and what did not during the latest chaos.
Some lessons from the 2013 plan were dead on:
"While large-scale loss of life or property do not typically occur during winter storms, conditions can quickly become dangerous," the report cautioned. "Stranded motorists or those caught outside during the storm face great threats in reaching help."
Yet the document also demonstrates how government planning can be steered by the last big disaster, which might not resemble future challenges. For example, the report recognized that hospitals or facilities caring for the elderly and disabled may need supply deliveries should a storm shut down transportation routes. Those problems occurred in 2011 when roads were impassable, in some cases for nearly a week.
But the report did not anticipate a situation where tens of thousands of people could become stuck en masse on highways.
An overview in the plan uses the storm of Jan. 9, 2011, to explain what can go wrong. That evening, a wintery mix of rain, sleet and snow fell across the upper half of the state, including a band of snowfall across Interstate 20.
Some places in north Georgia received as much as 10 inches of snow. Much like this week, temperatures stayed below freezing, allowing the slush to freeze on top of the roads, making them impassable. Vehicles got stuck on interstates, and many schools were forced to close for the week.
After the storm, Georgia changed its laws so tractor-trailers could be required to use chains to prevent traffic-snarling crashes. That authority was not invoked during this storm.
The report anticipated that authorities would have two or three days of warning before a storm struck. That proved correct. The National Weather Service started cautioning last weekend that Atlanta could receive significant amounts of snow and ice. Early forecasts showed the worst of the storm passing south of the city. But by early Monday, forecasters had extended the storm watch to the metro Atlanta region and warned motorists to avoid traveling.
State and local leaders did not adapt quickly enough. Gov. Nathan Deal even tried blaming the National Weather Service, saying federal forecasters were wrong.
However, the plan recommends that state leaders remember a key assumption when dealing with storms.
"Winter storms may fluctuate in coverage and intensity," the report said. "These storms may become severe with little warning."