There are at least a couple of "teachable" moments from the winter storm that has paralyzed much of the south.
First, as is often the case during a weather-related debacle, there are the inevitable claims that "we didn't know it [the storm] was coming. But that wasn't the case in Atlanta. Marshall Shepherd, a professor of meterology at the University of Georgia, notes that the National Weather Service issued a winter weather advisory for much of the state--including the metro area--on Monday morning, almost 36 hours before the storm arrived:
"...Watches and Warnings were issued in advance of the snow event and with plenty of time for decisions to be made. Here is text directly from the National Weather Service website on MONDAY at 4:55 am:
SOUTH FULTON- INCLUDING THE CITIES OF...ATLANTA...CONYERS...DECATUR...
455 AM EST MON JAN 27 2014
...WINTER STORM WATCH IN EFFECT FROM TUESDAY MORNING THROUGH
Early on Tuesday morning well before the crack of dawn (3:39 am to be exact), the National Weather Service issued a Winter Storm Warning with expectations of 1-2 inches of snow. Even for the mountain counties of Georgia, Winter Weather Advisories were issued."
Someone might ask Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed if they bothered to check the local forecast on Monday or Tuesday. Ditto for the school superintendents who decided to hold classes with a winter storm heading their way.
And even for those who insist that the NWS warning came later, you can argue there was still enough time to cancel classes in Metro Atlanta (and other areas), preventing kids--and teachers--from being stranded at school. At mid-day Wednesday, many of those youngsters and educators were still on campus, after a night of sleeping in their classrooms, or on the gymnasium floor. In some cases, parents walked miles to school to stay with their kids. There were also stories of teachers trudging through the snow to get medicine for students with serious medical conditions, and restaurants that remained open, providing food to kids stranded on school buses.
So, what made it imperative to hold school on Tuesday? For starters, administrators don't like to interrupt the school calendar, especially if it means "make-up days" during spring break, on the weekend, or after the scheduled end of the school year. There's also the matter of informing school staff, some of whom arrive for work before 5 am.
But there's a fiscal component as well--and it goes beyond the cost of heating empty buildings, or recalling buses that may have started their routes. As we've noted in the past, schools make every effort to continue classes until early afternoon, because a significant portion of their funding is tied to the federal school lunch program. The more kids who are eligible for free or reduced meals, the more money a district collects each year.
And since the feds keep tabs on the number of students who are fed each day, there is an incentive for schools to remain in session past lunch time. In some districts, more than 75% of students participate in the lunch program, so keeping them out of the cafeteria for a couple of days could have an impact on the system's finances. We're not saying that was the primary factor behind yesterday's closing decision, but it is a fiscal reality that schools cannot ignore.
It's also a "use or lose" situation. If allocated money isn't spent, the district may receive less funding in the future. Colorado school officials are currently under fire for not spending $700,000 allocated for school lunches in recent years. The state spends about $175 million a year for school lunches; 97% of that money comes from the federal government. Flexible spending rules also allow districts to use money tied to the program for other purposes, such as administrative costs.
Government also plays a role in another teachable moment from yesterday's disaster. At a press conference this morning in Atlanta, reporters asked Mayor Reed about the "slow response" to the snow emergency, and what he might do differently, if confronted with a similar situation in the future. Without missing a beat, Reed proposed a "staggered" release plan for schools, government offices and businesses, to prevent the sudden flood of vehicles that created massive gridlock on Atlanta's freeway system.
A staggered release plan sounds good in theory, but (so far) no one has asked Mayor Reed how you actually implement such a system. Yes, you can establish a uniform dismissal time for local schools, but how do you tell a private business when they can let their employees go home? The same holds for local government offices, where such decisions are often left to on-site managers--and rightfully so. If I'm running the local social services office and most of my employees need to pick-up their kids from school (which are closing early), how can I keep them at work for another couple of hours--and off the road?
There's a better solution, and it involves training and preparing for "worst case" scenarios; making tough calls before a situation becomes a crisis, and "encouraging" local officials to do the same thing. Had schools in Georgia and Alabma been closed on Tuesday, much of the chaos that unfolded later in the day could have been easily avoided.
Atlanta will never have a snowplow fleet that equals Chicago, and it doesn't make much sense to stockpile vast quantities of salt and road treatment chemicals that may be used only twice during a decade. But leadership at the state and local levels can mitigate winter weather emergencies by being proactive and making the right decision.