Last week, thousands of Atlanta drivers found themselves stuck in vehicles that weren’t going anywhere. About two inches of snow had abruptly paralyzed the city. Cars were abandoned on highways. Thousands of schoolchildren spent the night away from their parents, many sleeping in classrooms or buses.
The incident, dubbed "Snow Jam" by local news outlets, drew national attention to that region’s lack of preparedness for the storm. It also exposed the challenges facing urban areas in Texas and other southern states in planning for the kind of severe winter weather that doesn't come often.
In Atlanta, the problems developed after local officials did not close schools or encourage residents to stay home the day of the bad weather. That afternoon, as a wintry mix accumulated, schools and government offices were let out early, as were tens of thousands of private workers. Major highways fell to gridlock.
The situation ended up as the kind of worst-case scenario that is not out of the question in Texas, said Tim Lomax, a research engineer with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
“If any metropolitan region made the kinds of unfortunate decisions that happened there, everybody would be in that same position,” Lomax said.
Every year, at least some Texas urban areas will shut down in response to a small scattering of snow or ice. While some might dismiss the outcome as an overreaction, it is largely tied to the limited infrastructure and supplies that state and local officials have to de-ice and later clear roads in such weather, which can pale in comparison with what an area in New England has at the ready.
"Cities don’t invest the kinds of money in trucks or snow plows that you need if it’s going to happen a couple of times a decade," Lomax said. "It seems like the bigger Texas cities tend to take the 'Geez, it looks like it could be bad. Let’s tell everyone to stay home' approach."
That approach was on display Thursday morning in Central Texas as winter weather led to delays at schools and government offices.
As with the rest of the country, this winter has been more challenging for public officials in Texas. Between September and December of last year, TxDOT spent more than $5 million on materials for snow and ice removal, spokesman Bob Kaufman said. The agency spent about $1 million on those materials for the same periods in 2011 and 2012.
“So clearly this winter has been unique,” Kaufman said.
A 2011 study by the Texas Transportation Institute found 642 “winter weather events” in Texas between 2000 and 2010. West Texas drew more than 50 percent of the storms, while about one-third hit North Texas. The Panhandle tended to draw mostly snow, while Dallas-Fort Worth and Waco were more likely to see a mix of snow and ice. Further south in Austin and San Antonio, winter weather is typically a mixture of ice and freezing rain.
To augment its equipment, the Texas Department of Transportation will frequently move its snowplows, graders and other winter weather equipment around the state depending on local needs.
“I think an Atlanta situation can occur anywhere and does occur anywhere,” said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. “The question in my mind is the preparation and communication if it does happen.”
The Atlanta region and the area of North Texas overseen by Morris share some commonalities: Both are represented by dozens of towns and cities, making coordination a challenge. Because of decades of suburban sprawl, both regions have more than 5 million residents spread out over thousands of square miles. And in both areas, personal vehicles are the dominant form of transportation and public transportation options are limited.
Yet when Dallas-Fort Worth was hit with a severe ice storm in December, the region did not see the kind of mass calamity that occurred in Atlanta. TxDOT mobilized 1,100 pieces of equipment and 1,700 employees to aid impacted cities “from El Paso to Texarkana,” Kaufman said. The region essentially shut down for a week as a prolonged stretch of subfreezing weather made it tougher to clear the roads.
“You can’t ask the taxpayer and the policy official to fund 100 percent of the needs and 98 percent of the time, they’re not going to be used,” Morris said. “That final 2 percent, you just shouldn’t go outside.”
Often the decision of whether a school district should close in response to a weather forecast is one of the most complicated for local officials. The decision goes beyond the impact on school instruction, Paul Whitton, the associate executive director with the Texas Association of School Administrators, said this week. Closing schools complicates things for working parents as well, he said, as well as low-income families in which the children rely on the breakfasts and lunches they receive at school.
“It’s not something that any superintendent takes lightly, because canceling school just affects so many different things and so many different people,” Whitton said.
On Wednesday afternoon, officials in the Austin Independent School District closely monitored the overnight weather forecast. Emergency Management Coordinator John Gaete said he and other officials would confer that evening and probably again at around 3 a.m. before a final decision was made.
Among the complicating factors is that the roads could be fine for driving after sunrise but impassable beforehand, he said.
“One of the things we consider heavily here when we make these decisions is the thousands of the employees we have coming in really, really early in the morning,” Gaete said. “There’s just a lot of moving parts to retract if the weather doesn’t do what we’re expecting it to do.”