Cobb County elementary school children sleeping Tuesday night in the gym
Last Tuesday my train pulled into Union Station, Washington DC, shortly before noon. The station and surrounding city were unusually quiet. The Federal Office of Personnel Management had given most of its employees liberal leave to stay home. Most area schools followed this lead.
On Capitol Hill — where I still had some meetings — the snow did not really begin until about 2:00 and was not quite as bad as predicted even into the height of the typical rush hour, which given the OPM decision had much more rush than usual.
By the next morning there was nearly 4 inches of snow at Reagan Airport and over 8 at Dulles. Wednesday got underway with official delays.
Still some were inclined to second-guess the Tuesday mitigation decision made with the best possible information Monday night.
I hope the second-guessers are giving close attention to the more recent news out of Atlanta.
Even at dawn Tuesday, January 28 the best information available to Georgia decision-makers — very much including the general public — was that the worst weather would track south and east of Atlanta. Beginning between about 7 and 8 that morning the best information began to shift. By 10 it was snowing in Bartow County on the northwestern edge of metro Atlanta. By 11 it was snowing hard and icing. At 11:23 Cobb County Schools (along the Northwest Atlanta beltway) closed and began busing students home. At 12:15 Georgia DOT suggested private-sector workers head home.
By 1:00 many Atlanta highways were grid-locked, more the result of sudden volume than — yet — because of the weather. (Should bring back unpleasant memories of similar events in Chicago and DC in recent years.) As some of you know, traffic is not an unusual problem in Atlanta, even in fragrant and sunny springtime.
At 1:55 the Governor declared a State of Emergency; the most immediate effect being to pour state employees onto already packed roads. Across the United States we are predisposed to evacuations. It is a bad — sometimes, someplaces deadly — habit.
By mid-afternoon the snow and especially ice were adding to the problems. You have probably seen the videos. There were several hundred vehicle accidents just in the Atlanta area.
On Wednesday many Tuesday afternoon commuters were still stuck in their cars. Some had abandoned their vehicles. In several cases school buses were forced to retreat back to classrooms. Several hundred children — the numbers are still unclear — spent the night in their schools. (See picture above.) My ten-year-old nephew got home from school, but neither of his parents could. Shane spent the night at the neighbors.
There will be after-action analyses. There will be studies. There will be hearings. There will be blame-gaming. There will be lessons-learned.
What I hope someone will declare clearly and well is that 1) there are many things we cannot accurately predict, 2) especially in unpredictable contexts innate vulnerabilities are exposed, and 3) in densely networked environments, like cities, these vulnerabilities can sometimes meet and mate, propagating suddenly and prolifically.
So… for a whole host of risks we are wise to invest in mitigation and to keep in mind that what will always seem an over-investment before will likely pay profitable dividends after.
This principle applies well beyond the weather, including water systems, supply chains, fuel networks, bridges, and much, much more.