This past week was a time which none of us will soon forget. Our city, region and state faced a winter weather storm that wreaked havoc on our streets, citizens and schoolchildren. There are also amazing tales of generosity and support our residents provided to those in need.
I must start by saying how very sorry I am that our streets so quickly were gridlocked, motorists left stranded and schoolchildren unable to get home to their families. At the same time, I’d like to review the events and understand the lessons to learn from this past week for our government.
The city of Dunwoody began emergency operations Tuesday morning, Jan. 28. The city was well prepared with adequate supplies of salt/sand mix, snow plows, road crews, tire chains, gasoline, extra police personnel, etc.
DeKalb County schools, along with Atlanta and almost all major north-metro county schools, released students early on Tuesday. Offices across the metro area followed suit, releasing employees at the onset of the snowfall. This set off a chain reaction of parents leaving their workplaces to either pick up their children or get home in advance of buses.
unwoody’s location makes it a crossroads for those trying to navigate the interstates and local roads to head home. Within 45 minutes of the first sign of snow, there was a colossal volume of traffic in Dunwoody with no place to go.
With the main roads gridlocked, the only way maintenance trucks were able to continue spreading salt/sand at critical areas on Tuesday after the snow fell was through a police escort. Even with a police escort, we were not able to spread salt/sand as effectively as the city could with the roads being cleared of vehicles.
While crews were prepared with salt/sand spreaders and snow plows late Monday, this equipment helps remove snow and ice only once it has fallen. Pretreatment with dry salt/sand is not effective. Pretreatment with liquid solutions can help prevent snow and ice from bonding to the pavement but requires additional investment in storage facilities and equipment which the city intends to explore for the future. However, even with pretreatment, salting or plowing after the fact is still usually necessary.
Operating in a “triage” mode, our police force deliberated having officers direct traffic but realized the multitude of intersections in Dunwoody couldn’t be manned simultaneously to make any impact. When traffic could not get in or out of the area, the teams shifted focus to getting help, shelter and assistance to people in need.
On Tuesday, the police called in personnel to come in early and they deployed all staff available responding to 9-1-1 calls and the needs of our community. Police were active, responding to life-threatening and medical calls, assisting motorists, passing out blankets, clearing cars and roadways, and utilizing an all-terrain vehicle to provide gas to stranded motorists. Dunwoody police respond to about 75 calls for service in a normal 24-hour period. In an 18-hour period, they had an overwhelming 222 calls for service.
Public Works staff worked closely with police to clear accidents and help stranded motorists, but salt/sand trucks and snow plows couldn’t fully deploy due to traffic congestion. Only when traffic volume died down could salt/sand and plow crews ramp up.
Crews continued work all night and into the morning prioritizing work on main roads and thoroughfares first. Trucks have a difficult time maintaining control on steep icy hills in neighborhoods and when there are a lot of abandoned cars on the road there is little room to operate safely.
Early Wednesday, crews were busy spreading salt/sand to melt the ice, aiding stranded motorists and preparing for re-freezing of roads due to falling temperatures. The city’s communications teams used email, social media and the news media to keep our residents informed of changing road conditions and warned citizens to stay off the roads as much as possible.
By Thursday morning most of the city’s major roads were treated and crews worked to treat icy hills in neighborhoods as conditions warranted. By Thursday late afternoon, overall road conditions were decent and only the toughest of neighborhood streets remained icy. City government opened up on Friday while schools remained closed.
Future plans will call for collaborative preparation efforts with DeKalb County schools to proactively close school on those days when a daytime snowfall is expected. We believe traffic gridlock and other consequences may have been avoided if schools had been closed all day on Tuesday.
The city will also work with local religious institutions, retailers, hotels, community groups and volunteers to identify and utilize emergency shelters and safe accommodations for those in need. The city will be reviewing all of our procedures in light of this weather incident. The city will also be investigating the equipment and materials necessary to pre-treat the roadways in advance of expected weather problems. These and other lessons learned will be part of our city’s best-practice efforts for future emergency operations.
Lastly, I was moved by the generous and heartfelt aid that our citizens provided. I’m thankful to the businesses and religious institutions, which opened their doors for those in need of shelter. I have heard countless stories of Dunwoody residents giving much needed assistance. From transporting kids and parents back and forth on ATVs to handing out water, hot chocolate and snacks to stranded motorists, to pushing cars and providing overnight shelter to friends, relatives and strangers, our community came through and selflessly gave from their hearts and never quit tending to others.
Our personal experiences during this event created indelible memories of what occurred over these four days.
For me, there was a special blessing during the storm as my daughter went into labor late Tuesday evening. Thanks to the aid of an ambulance outfitted with tire chains she got to the hospital in time and gave birth to my grandson, Ian Edward, at 4:51 a.m. Wednesday morning.
There’s a lot we as a city can learn from this past week – some that can be improved and some efforts that can be echoed in the future. One unforgettable thing we can all take away is our renewed belief in each other. Thanks to our community, Dunwoody continues to be an incredible place to live.
Mike Davis is the mayor of Dunwoody.