Get Schooled

Posted: 8:11 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014

"That no children died or were even seriously hurt is testament to the caring and resourcefulness of those frontline workers" 

Gov. Deal’s icy Tuesday: From photo opps to snow chaos
At about 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Gov. Nathan Deal attends a state Capitol ceremony to unveil Georgia’s new Gone With the Wind-themed tourism guide. Later he posed with actors portraying Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. From left to right: state Economic Development Commissioner Chris Carr, Gov. Nathan Deal. To the far right is state Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, head of the House Committee on Economic Development and Tourism. (The individual behind Scarlett O’Hara is unidentified).

By Maureen Downey

The AJC investigative teams are hard at work on how less than 3 inches of snow turned 30 minute commutes into 18-hour nightmares and stranded thousands of schoolchildren, some stuck on buses for hours without heat or food.

The reporters are asking critical questions: "Questions raised by Snowjam 2014 — or whatever we call it — go beyond reading weather warnings and deciding when to send out sand-spreaders, though. If Atlanta’s emergency system can’t handle 2.6 inches of afternoon snow, how could it ever withstand a more serious crisis, such as a chemical spill or a terrorist attack? For that matter, what if it snows again?"

Many people are talking about what would happen to them in the case of a mass evacuation of any kind.  Would they be able to get their children from schools? Would schools be able to move children out quickly to safety?

Here are excerpts of two great pieces this weekend.  There is also a good story on how Florida and other states handle mass evacuations.

First, an in-depth review of the failures of the state to take the storm seriously until it was too late. The piece is by reporters Johnny Edwards, Dan Chapman and Shannon McCaffrey. (This is a short excerpt. Please read the full piece.)

The leadership breakdown started well before the first snowflakes fell, even though weather forecasters issued a winter storm warning in the wee morning hours. No one saw fit to wake the governor to tell him.

Later, with snow already falling on the outskirts of the metro area, emails to and from the governor’s office, obtained by the AJC through an open records request, show Deal and his aides hanging back, with more focus on his circle of staffers than the general public.

That morning, he attended a tourism event at the state Capitol, unveiling a new “Gone With The Wind”-themed Georgia travel guide. He posed for a photo with Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. Meanwhile, Charley English, his Georgia Emergency Management Agency director, sent a note on Tuesday at 10:44 a.m. that troopers were reporting wrecks in northeast Georgia: “So it is starting.”

The governor’s slow response wasted valuable time when he could have used his bully pulpit, signalling the public to stay home and off the roads. “In the absence of any kind of authority telling people what to do, they will tend to go about their regular business because their children are in school and workplaces are open,” said Joanne Nigg, former director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware.

“Had the governor come out when the storm had started in earnest and said, ‘Stay off the roads,’ people would be more likely to listen,” Nigg said.

And AJC reporters  Ty Tagami and Carrie Teegardin on how the storm left teachers and bus drivers on their own to cope with the unthinkable:

Here is an excerpt but, again, please the entire piece before commenting:

Lin-Sheng Lee still had seven teenagers on his bus when he got stranded. Little heat on the bus. Eighteen degrees outside. Stuck in the dark on the on-ramp from Ashford-Dunwoody to I-285: no cops, no rescue, no options.

Three hours come and go. About 10:30 p.m., three young people emerge from the dark and tap on the bus door. “We have food,” they say. Lee replies, “Oh my God” and gratefully accepts the candy bars and water.

Midnight: still no rescue. The kids are tired, hungry and desperate for a bathroom. The cold is just getting worse.

School districts in metro Atlanta made the spectacularly bad decision to open on Tuesday — a fateful call that meant the central offices were disconnected from key decisions made Tuesday evening. Instead, life-and-death decisions about children fell to people like Lin-Sheng Lee — the bus drivers, principals, teachers and school staff, all pushed into the impossible and sometimes terrifying quests to return students to their families.

That no children died or were even seriously hurt is testament to the caring and resourcefulness of those frontline workers — and reflects no small amount of luck. Ten thousand children in Atlanta, Fulton, Cobb, Cherokee, Douglas and Marietta could not reach their parents as of late Tuesday night. At Marietta High School, culinary arts students took to the kitchen and cooked for stranded classmates. Contrast that with Atlanta, where cooks at the city jail prepared food for some of the stranded kids and police delivered it. Scores of buses, including about 80 in Atlanta alone, were abandoned on the roads.

The number of children stranded was highest in Fulton County: 3,145, of which 239 spent the night on buses. At south Fulton’s Westlake High School, cafeteria manager Henry Smith made it home but then decided to walk back to school in the snow. He prepared 800 dinners and then 450 breakfasts.

“There were so many people who stepped up to do things that were far beyond their job description,” said Westlake Principal Grant Rivera. Forty staff members stayed overnight to help oversee the school so Rivera could focus on communicating with parents..

Get students home to their parents: that’s what school officials were aiming to do Tuesday afternoon. Teachers at Elkins Pointe Middle School in Roswell placed a 14-year-old student with autism on a special needs bus Tuesday evening, headed for home, said Lorrie Bearden, the school’s assistant principal. The boy, whose autism is severe, is not verbal and needs one-on-one assistance most of the time.

The bus driver who took him from the school, Brenda McCray, wasn’t even his usual driver. But in the midst of the storm, she was the one who was there, Bearden said. And like Lin-Sheng Lee, she got stuck, too.

First, McCray sought shelter with the boy at a day-care center. Out of his routine, he started getting agitated. The driver did everything she could to calm him while Bearden worked to find a way to get him home. School staff weren’t sure they could handle the boy back at the school, which was packed with students staying overnight. Staffing and supplies were limited, and administrators resorted to using coats from their lost-and-found as blankets.

Maureen Downey

About Maureen Downey

Maureen Downey is a longtime reporter for the AJC where she has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy for 12 years.

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