Without belaboring the details of Atlanta's recent snow panic, here's the short version of what happened: Snow fell, everyone was told to leave work and school at the same time, the region instantly became gridlocked, conditions worsened, city and state leaders immediately started deflecting blame while their constituents experienced the most pandemic case of road despair née rage on record. Kids slept in schools, people slept in cars or left them on foot and crashed in businesses, churches, or other people's homes. Thousands of accidents happened.
In the days since, the drama has shifted to the predictable blame game: Gov. Nathan Deal said the state couldn't have prepared more because the snow was "unexpected." Mayor Kasim Reed said Atlanta did a fine job but the state messed it all up.
But they all failed in a big way. This situation showed each of those parties not doing their jobs well, and everyone suffered as a result. But Atlantans didn't fail. Not to brag, but we rocked this crisis, you guys.
First, can we just appreciate how adorable it was to see meteorologists get indignant while defending themselves against proclamations of the "unexpected" nature of this weather event? Their defense was solid: According to Team Weather, Team Government could suck an icicle because every news station had been talking about it for days beforehand. Even the conservative National Weather Service issued warnings the night before. People saw this coming. So why didn't city and state officials heed the warnings and call for people to stay home ahead of time?
Partly because no one trusts weather reporters anymore, and you can't really blame them. I get it — TV is about ratings and weather isn't sexy. But there's an inherent risk to building your weather coverage brand around "severe" and "extreme." It feels like the weather media's game plan has become "if you can't force the weather to be newsworthy, act like it is anyway." "Severe weather coverage" is the network TV equivalent of click-bait articles online. The goal is your attention. What happened this week was the worst possible result of this dynamic where everyone assumes that weather forecasts are exaggerated for effect.
The weather media's fault isn't that they got their information wrong, or that they didn't release it in time, it's that they've been slowly eroding their credibility. Both government leaders and meteorologists failed Atlanta. And it wasn't because of poor decision making in this isolated case — it was the result of long-standing methods of how they operate.
Something else unique happened — for the first time in a long time, everyone in metro Atlanta had the exact same problem. For a few days, people in all parts of the city and suburbs faced the same goals and challenges. Metro Atlanta has been scurrying to put up walls to distinguish and isolate themselves from the whole for many reasons — partially out of the fear that, in an area so widespread and populous, our specific and unique community needs will be lost in the shuffle. The differences that continuously pit us against each other politically — and that often stagnate our ability to progress — fell away in the face of mutually shared, more basic priorities: We wanted to hold our kids, to go home, and to be warm and safe.
Sharing these immediate needs, combined with collectively realizing that our "leaders" had their heads up their asses, incited Atlantans to deal with the crisis. Within hours, social media worked to ensure everyone had a safe place to go. People leveraged their social networks to connect people stuck in cars with those who had homes nearby. People vouched for each other's trustworthiness and other people believed that enough to welcome them into their homes. This does not happen enough anymore.
It sucks how it happened, but look at how — when the roads-only infrastructure of metro Atlanta failed to take care of us — we instinctively fell back on the basics of human interaction, exercised trust and generosity, and were simply there for each other. A million moments of individual powerlessness resulted in this unprecedented moment of collective strength. For a metro region that is becoming increasingly defined by divisions within its population, this might've been a radically beneficial team-building exercise.
We're existing with new clarity about structural failings all over — in how our city functions, how our government operates, how our media serves us — but that is a good thing. We need to be aware of where things are fractured so that we can tend to them, and ideally, mend them.
I hope we continue to ask questions and push for progress and not let these issues slip into irrelevance now that the ice has thawed, the cars have been collected, and Deal's blood pressure has normalized. I hope we keep thinking about the fundamental problem of having a metro region that's Balkanizing more every year, served by a skeleton public transit system. I hope we remember that the people we look to for leadership are largely doling it out per their own agendas, and that sometimes we have to be our own leaders. Metro Atlantans cleaned up a tremendous mess created by both political leaders and the media. I hope we hold them accountable, especially during the November elections — and remember that we need leaders who will nurture the overall functionality of our expansive, diverse metro region. Let's also remember to feel empowered and encouraged by what we did for each other. Maybe now our perception of how connected we are will lead us to take care of each other in preventative ways, too.
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