The Week in Weather: What we learned
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Feb 02, 2014 | 698 views |  0 comments | 1 1 recommendations | email to a friend | print
If Deborah Gaither could do last week all over again, she'd tell everyone to buy a bag of kitty litter.

"Even a small bag of litter in your car can help you when your car's stuck in snow," said Gaither, director of the Talladega County Emergency Management Agency.

Gaither and other local emergency officials say that in coming weeks, they'll have time to pick apart their response to last week's snowstorm, which left at least nine dead across the state, turned highways into parking lots and left kids stranded in schools.

But some emergency officials say they're already seeing some lessons emerging from the storm. One is the difficulty of preparing, at a statewide level, for something as hard to predict as snowflakes in the South. The other is the need for average people to have emergency kits — including kits in their cars — so they can be ready to take on the unexpected themselves.

"This is one of the things we stress routinely," said Joe Jankoski, chapter executive for the Red Cross of Calhoun and Cleburne Counties. "Have supplies on hand so you'll be ready."

Last week's storm was less a snowpocalypse than a didn't-know-pocalypse. Forecasters predicted a rare few inches of the white stuff in southern Alabama and even the Florida panhandle — and a dusting of snow in the state's northern half, including Anniston. Gov. Robert Bentley declared a state of emergency Monday, southern Alabama schools announced they would close, and children from Montgomery to Midland City went to bed with visions of snow days dancing in their heads.

By noon Tuesday, it was Anniston getting the blanket of snow — Anniston and the Appalachian foothills north of the city, where steep, well-shaded roads slicked over with ice. Parents dropped off their kids at school, then heard school was canceled, then left work only to be trapped on icy roads where traffic was stalled, as if the clock itself had frozen.

In Atlanta, where the stalled traffic was sometimes six lanes wide, some have accused Gov. Nathan Deal of planning poorly for the storm. Others blame Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, leader of the city at the heart of the multi-county metro area. Some say the real fault lies with the urban sprawl that makes Atlanta a commuting headache even on the brightest spring day.

In Alabama, however, there was less appetite for finger-pointing. Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, normally a critic of the state's Republican leadership, said on the Senate floor that Bentley "deserves kudos" for his handling of the storm.

Emergency management experts in Calhoun County refused to second-guess the state's EMA officials.

"I wouldn't be in a position to criticize them," said Jeff Ryan, head of the doctoral program in emergency management at Jacksonville State University. "I wasn't there."

Ryan noted that he had a "close working relationship" with Alabama's emergency management agency and didn't want to damage it.

Local emergency officials laid the blame on the forecast, but were quick to say they didn't blame the meteorologists. Predicting the future, they said, is hard.

"It's called a forecast, not a prophecy," said Steve Swafford, Cleburne County's emergency management director.

Swafford pointed out that snow forecasts in Alabama have been wrong before, though they've often swung the other way, with schoolkids sitting at home and no snow on the ground.

"It's a fine line, when you talk about an emergency alert," he said. "You have to be cautious. You can't cry wolf every time the sun doesn't shine."

Three years ago, Alabama was hit by a storm that dumped snow and ice on the northern two-thirds of the state, shutting down schools and businesses. State officials issued warnings about a variety of threats from the storm, from the dangers of driving on ice to the hazards of building makeshift heaters. The storm passed, and injuries were relatively few.

The Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency had about a dozen full-time employees during that time, said Tammy Bain, spokeswoman for the agency. Now there are four. The numbers, she said, declined after the county lost its Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program, a federally funded program that helped the area prepare for a possible mishap with the chemical weapons that were once stored at the Anniston Army Depot. The last weapons were destroyed in 2011.

Volunteers now work the phone lines that were manned by CSEPP employees in the 2011 storm. Bain said the difference this year was not the lack of personnel, but the lack of advance notice.

"Things went well for it to be kind of a surprise," Bain said.

In Talladega County, Gaither said, officials didn't dispense any storm-preparation advice on Monday because there was no indication they'd have more than a dusting of snow.

"We didn't put out any special messages because we weren't under a winter storm warning," she said.

Gaither said emergency officials have long urged people to have emergency supplies of things they'll need — non-perishable food, flashlights, blankets — in case of a disaster. That includes an emergency stash for the car, in case the driver becomes stranded.

"The same supplies you'd keep for a hurricane would be things you might need in a snowstorm," she said.

One difference, of course, is kitty litter. A bag of that, or sand, poured on the ground could have helped some stranded drivers get out of slick spots in the road — an idea that may have occurred to some Alabama drivers as they waited at the roadside last week.

Jankoski, the Red Cross administrator, said it's not too surprising that Alabamians — and Alabama communities — don't have a lot of snow-specific equipment.

"It's like having plant food for a palm tree when you live in Minnesota," he said. "It's something you're not going to use very often."

State officials' views of the storm response are likely to become more refined over the next few weeks. Local emergency management officials said Friday that they were still working on storm recovery, and likely wouldn't begin a full review until next week. State officials agreed.

"We're still trying to close the event," said Brian Corbett, spokesman for the Alabama Emergency Management Agency.

"One of the things we learned," he said, "is that we have to be adaptable."

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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