ATLANTA – With memories of gridlock on icy Atlanta highways still fresh, Georgia officials got a second chance Monday to prove the state could prepare for winter weather. The governor declared a state of emergency hours ahead of the storm, something he didn't do two weeks ago.
Gov. Nathan Deal was widely criticized for the response to the Jan. 28 storm that paralyzed the metro area after two inches of snow fell. Drivers spent the night in frigid cars, students slept in school buses and thousands of cars were abandoned along highways. Officials reported one accident-related death.
Georgia became the brunt of late-night jokes, and some residents were still skeptical the state would be better prepared this time.
"I'm not counting on it. I've been in Georgia on and off for 20 years. It's usually the same scenario, not enough preparations and not enough equipment," said Terri Herod, who bought a large bag of sand and a shovel at a Home Depot. She said her sister told her to also buy kitty litter in case her car gets stuck on an ice patch.
Atlanta has a long and painful history of being ill-equipped to deal with snowy weather and people were not taking any chances, even though officials promised the response would be different this time.
Even before the first snowflakes fell, people around Atlanta planned to work from home and stay off the roads. Jay Ali, 33, a college student, said he had little confidence that government officials would handle this storm any better.
"New levels of incompetence," Ali said, describing the state and regional response to the last storm. "Unforeseen levels of incompetence."
Ali said part of the problem is that Southern cities do not have as many snow plows, sanders and spreaders as Northern cities.
"I don't think they have the infrastructure to protect themselves if a storm gets really bad," he said.
The National Weather Service issued a winter weather watch until Tuesday evening for northern parts of Georgia and the same watch from Tuesday evening through Thursday for the metro Atlanta area.
Other parts of the South are expected to get hit as well. Alabama, which saw stranded vehicles and had problems similar to Atlanta in the January storm, was likely to get a wintry mix of precipitation. Parts of Mississippi could see three inches of snow late Monday through noon Tuesday. And a blast of snow over a wide section of Kentucky slickened roads and closed several school districts.
Rain was expected Monday night in north Georgia, with predictions that it would change to snow by Tuesday morning and mix with sleet during the day. Snow was expected from Tuesday night through Thursday morning. Snow will likely accumulate, making driving conditions hazardous.
In a statement Sunday, Deal said he had put emergency response agencies on alert and begun significant preparations. He scheduled a news conference for noon Monday.
In the last storm, he didn't hold his first news conference until hours after highways were jammed.
Deal, a Republican who is up for re-election, and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, took heat from residents, forecasters and even comedians.
Saturday Night Live spoofed an Atlanta storm "survivor," complete with a thick Southern accent and references to the "Yankee's slush." "The sun will rise again," the character said. After showing television news images of the gridlock, Jon Stewart quipped: "The ice age zombie doomsday apocalypse has come to Atlanta."
The governor apologized and announced the formation of a task force to develop recommendations on how the state can be better prepared. He also called for various internal and external reviews and wants a new public alert system for severe weather, similar to what's used for missing and endangered children.
Some commuters already planned to stay home once the storm started.
"Basically, everyone from the office is going to be working from home," said Dakota Herrera as he left a downtown car park on his way to the office.
Some people predicted that Deal and other officials might overreact at the first hint of snow.
"I can only think it will be better because there was a brouhaha," said Gary Flack, who avoided getting stuck in the last storm by leaving work before the snow started to fall.