Val in Real Life vs. the Atlanta Snowpocalypse

As you know, Atlanta has been the focus of scrutiny and ridicule following the absurdity of last week’s snow-induced debacle. And, as you also know, we were right smack in the thick of it.

The setup

So in a nutshell, Tuesday marked the first day of the new semester of Fred and George’s classes at their homeschool co-op. That morning, we traveled about 35 miles from Roswell (north of Atlanta) to the Decatur area (East side of Atlanta). I knew snow was on its way and that it always causes Atlanta much distress but at only 2 inches forecast, it was not initially a red-flag situation.

It was all very peaceful at first. I was sitting in the car working while the kids were in class. The snow was falling all around. All the kids (and many of the parents…) were excited, playing, and giggling with delight. When classes were over at 1:30, I had no idea what awaited me on the roads. I had been working, not plugged into the news. I’d gotten no worrisome indications from any of the other parents at the co-op. And so we set out to go home, normally a 30-45 minute drive.

Why did we even go? Well, like I said, this was not a batten-down-the-hatches situation from a weather standpoint. For a little urban-planning perspective, here’s what usually happens in Atlanta… the mention of a snowflake possibly being sighted shuts down schools. Typically every system in the very, very large metro area closes. We’ve gotten used to the Chicken Little snow-is-coming reaction and we’re a bit jaded. In this case, some schools closed, most didn’t. Our homeschool co-op follows a system that did not close so off we went to class.

snowpocalypse - val in real life
Before the madness. George brought out his first robotics creation to show me.

History

In spite of our generally mild weather, Atlanta gets smacked with a winter storm every now-and-then. For the sake of argument that we’re not complete winter-weather morons, let me contrast Snowpocalypse 2014 with the Snowmageddon 2011 scenario. (Yes, I know… Snowpocalypse, Snowmageddon, ClusterFlake, Snarlocaust, etc. We Georgians have a flare for the dramatic when it comes to winter weather.)

Anyway, in 2011, Atlanta got hit with a true ice storm. We knew it was coming, we knew it was going to be ice, we knew we couldn’t handle it. The city shut down in advance and most folks stayed home. Even though the city was useless for almost a week as the freeze-thaw cycles kept the roads dangerous, it was just a nuisance, not a civil emergency.

The build-up to Snowpocalypse

By the time we got on the road in Decatur at 1:30 PM to head back to Roswell, traffic was snarled and slow but not stopped and grid-locked. When we set out and I realized how bad it was, I considered hanging out at a nearby friend’s house, not because I anticipated a very dangerous situation, but because I didn’t want to deal with that kind of traffic. With the Disapproving Beagle at home though, I figured we’d just take our lumps and continue on… again, having no idea what this was turning into in terms of a public safety disaster.

Realizing we were in for the long haul to make our 35-mile trip and having originally planned to have lunch back at home, I actually made one of my few smart moves which was to grab some fast food. It’s something we rarely resort to but I’ve never been happier I visited a drive-through.

snowpocalypse - val in real life
Even at 4:30 PM there was no real indication what the situation was turning into. Yes, roads were clogged but the highway advisories were not indicating we should be making other plans for the night.

Ice, ice baby

What caused our problem last week was mainly the confluence of two important factors, one of which was millions of Atlantans heading home at the same time. As we sat on I-285, I told the boys it was rush-hour on steroids and it was going to take a long time to get home. So we dropped into road-trip mode… ’cause we’re pretty good at that if you haven’t noticed. We sang at the top of our lungs, listened to podcasts, practiced our spanish, and all the other things we do to keep ourselves entertained in the car.

The other main issue was the plummeting temperatures turning the melted snow into ice. Now you have not just clogged roads but icy ones… and that’s when the accidents begin. And that’s when everything comes to a complete halt. I made the first half of our trip in 90 minutes. The other half took over another 13 hours.

Grasping the situation

What seems to be hard for by-standers to understand, is that when you’re stuck on the road like we were, it’s hard to tell what’s going on and what your best option is. You’re living one decision at a time because the situation in your immediate area is changing around you almost before you can make adjustments. Sitting on I-285 initially, we couldn’t really tell how quickly things were deteriorating and that it was turning into a very dangerous situation from just a major hassle.

Shooting myself in the foot

The little tidbit I’ve yet to share is that when I left the loft that morning, I had only a quarter tank of gas. When we’re on road trips that’s when I fill up. Around town? Well, I foolishly and admittedly take for granted that I’ll have easy access to fuel. So no, I didn’t not fill up as I should have. It cost me dearly.

snowpocalypse - val in real life
Me hanging with Blubaru in the softly falling snow. See that U.S. map? Yep, she’s been all those places and I’ve never relied on her more than in my own city…

You see, while I was be-bopping along with the kids, trying to keep them distracted from the lengthy, unexpected delays, I was watching my fuel gauge and knowing I was in a world of hurt. By the time we got to GA 400, the last stretch north to Roswell, I knew I had to address the problem.

It was about this time that poor Fred lost his grip. After four hours on the road, my sweet Asperger-Boy couldn’t take it anymore. He had expected to be able to get home and relax and he just wasn’t coping with the unexpected change and growing hopelessness of the situation.

Three things led me to pull off the interstate: the pressing fuel situation, Fred needing a break, and the nagging sense that was time to get off the highway. I knew I needed more options that only surface streets would give me, snarled as they were. This also gave Fred a chance to get out of the car and regroup and we were in dire need of a potty break.

I knew we were in for a long haul. I knew getting fuel was going to be a tall order. In spite of knowing that, it was at this time that reality hit me very, very, very hard. When we pulled off of 400, the magnitude of gridlock was astounding… in fact, paralyzing. I couldn’t get near a gas station. We stopped for a potty break at a restaurant that was still open. I was across the street from the gas station but I couldn’t get to it. For two hours, nothing moved. I called hotels within walking distance but of course everything was full so we had to stick with trying for fuel.

By the time I got even close to the station, several hours later, I knew there was no hope of me getting into the station before the tanks were run dry. Having spent some time doing groundwater remediation at stations like this, I had a good idea how big their tanks were. Assessing how hard the station had been pounded for many hours by desperate commuters, some quick math told me that even if I got in, it probably wasn’t going to be before they ran out of fuel.

Getting a grip

Considering the plummeting temperatures, no hope of getting fuel, and being almost entirely unprepared for an emergency situation, I felt the beginnings of panic start to creep in. I knew I wasn’t getting the car into the gas station. I had nothing I could put fuel in to bring it to the car and I was certain there were no longer gas cans to be bought at the station.

Looking around at the scene at all of the people and the gridlock, the scale of the situation swept over me. With the antics of the Car Talk guys keeping the kids in giggles, I messaged a friend and said I was very much in trouble. And this is the power of support my dear friends. I received a message back asking me if I had water, fuel, and if I was in danger. I answered yes, no… no.

Those were exactly the questions I needed to be asking myself but was too overwhelmed to identify. I had a little bit of water that I just happen to carry out of habit. I even had some snacks on board for the same reason. Obviously I had no fuel and that was a very big problem because once that ran out, we were sitting ducks in the sub-freezing temperatures. But with that last question, I got my head back on straight. I looked around and realized that I was near hotels and restaurants that were still open. I had places to go to stay warm even if they weren’t ideal.

Having recollected my wits, I got back into the mode of getting myself out of this situation or at least into a better one. I warned the boys that we would not be getting home that night in all likelihood. Fred had gotten his freak-out over with and was coping again… which was a huge pressure relief for me, of course.

Good people

My next step all hinged on fuel. I accepted I wasn’t getting Blubaru into the station and without fuel I wasn’t getting home. I knew it was either going to be find a way to get fuel out to us or go hole up somewhere. So I pulled out of line for the station and wiggled my way to a bank across the street. I got out of the car to head over to the gas station and see if there was any chance of getting fuel. I came across a man with gas cans helping a woman refuel her car. I asked if there were still gas cans at the station, knowing full-well there really wasn’t any chance. REI Affiliate link

He said no but that he was helping people out and that he’d put me in his queue of folks to help. And he did. This remarkable man, who lived 30 miles away, knew he was going to be stuck for a long time so he’d bought gas cans earlier in the day and set to helping people. I was floored. People were begging to buy the gas cans off of him but he refused. He simply let people fill them up, helped them get fuel in their cars, then he’d move on to the next person.

The traffic jam kept cars from leaving the station which meant cars couldn’t get in either and is probably the only reason the station still had fuel. The gridlock was acting as an unexpected regulator. So when it was my turn for help from Wes the Gas Man, we were able to walk up to the pump and get fuel without being rude to any waiting customers.

Within 30 minutes of my brush with panic, I was refueled and back on the road. I spent the next two hours in disbelief, having gone from the resolution of having to find a random place to protect my children for the night to the possibility of actually making it home if I could stay away from getting into an accident on the icy roads.

Keep in mind that it was after 7 PM when I was nearly stranded without fuel and that most of us stuck in the fray had very few options. Most of us were still in the mode of thinking we’d wait it out and things would start to ease up. It wasn’t until after 8PM that I started to get messages that shelters were opening up. By then, I had gas and had resigned myself to backroads and surface streets. Traffic was so snarled, I couldn’t even get to designated shelters if I’d tried yet we were still 10 miles from home.

Settling in

With enough fuel to last us a long while, we creeped and crawled along the surface streets. From my position at the bank, I was able to slide around some very big snags by wiggling through nearly-deserted back streets. That let me get away from the more congested areas and we actually made some very good progress. We had a little bit of hope.

snowpocalypse - val in real life
The minions were champs throughout the ordeal but when they finally settled in to sleep, it took the pressure off of me to keep them distracted.

And then we’d hit another snag or another wreck that needed to be cleared. So we’d cycle through surges of moving forward and getting stuck, not knowing how long it wold be before we moved again. At this point, we didn’t have any access to the shelter locations being posted and we were well-away from areas where we had friends we could crash with. We were getting some messages of offers to stay with friends-of-friends and just about the time I would seriously start considering those options, we’d have another big surge of progress, fooling us into thinking we’d be ok to get home with only 6 miles to go.

We continued to crawl along in fits-and-starts. The boys settled in to sleep knowing we still had many hours ahead of us. I used the surface streets to my advantage, making decisions on the fly about which route to go next. In spite of still being in horrendous traffic, I had options that I wouldn’t have had on the highway. And sure enough, at some point in the process I started getting word that GA 400 had been closed. I knew that would only put more pressure on the surrounding surface streets so I stayed away from the roads with exits to the highway.

So close yet so far

At three miles from home, we were almost in the clear but were now out of options with only one way to get over the Chattahoochee River and make the last stretch towards home. And that’s when a school bus and a MARTA bus side-swiped each other just over the bridge, shutting down the road for four hours. Of course, we didn’t know what was happening at the time, just that everything had stopped moving. With fuel in the car though, I knew we’d be ok and that we wouldn’t freeze. But we were still too far to walk and, not knowing what the hold-up was ahead of us, held out hope that the road would re-open at any moment.

White-knuckling the last stretch

After four hours at a stand-still, traffic began to move again. It was 4 AM and friends had kept me awake and alert with messages the whole time. In the time traffic was dead stopped, the roads had completely iced over unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. I was dismayed by the thought of getting so close to home and then screwing up by getting stuck by the ice or worse, in a wreck.

As we got moving again, I dropped my Blubaru back into low gear and let her claw her way up the slippery streets, weaving around stranded cars. I grew more concerned as I watched some fairly significant trucks and SUVs failing to make the climb up the hill. I found myself having to ease away from people in two-wheel-drive sedans sliding over the ice. They were drifting perilously close into other cars but still wouldn’t stop trying. Clearly exhaustion, frustration, and desperation were running their decisions.

I had long since passed through the tiredness and into calm resolve. I guess my long road trips inadvertently prepared me for this because when we got moving again and it was time to get serious, I was focused, alert, and ready to get us home in one piece. But really the biggest factor in this was my Forester being the right car for the job on the icy roads. I’m nothing short of thrilled with her performance. I’m not exaggerating to say that she didn’t slip once on the ice the whole night and got us home safely at 4:30 AM. My girl delivered… big-time.

The ups

I got a few things right in the ordeal:

  • We know how to withstand long stretches in the car.
  • Without a clear place of safety to retreat to, staying in the warmth of the car (once we had fuel) was a good move.
  • Getting off the highway may have saved us. I think my end-story would be quite different had I not.
  • I’m glad I have people with a key to my loft. The Disapproving Beagle had long since been rescued from bladder-busting isolation, removing one stress-point from the night.
  • I did have some water, some food, and a significant first-aid kit, which I happily did not have to use to help anyone.
  • My car kicks butt and may be the best thing I’ve ever bought.

The downs

Sadly, I had to learn a lot of hard lessons in this:

  • I will be making my own decisions about weather and not relying on government decisions about when I should be on the road and when I shouldn’t. I will carefully assess temperatures, precipitation, and conditions for myself.
  • One of the factors in not being able to seek safety outside of a short walking distance was that the kids had trotted out the door in completely inappropriate clothing and footwear. Tired of the constant battle, I let it slide and didn’t insist upon some intelligent choices. I will be fighting that battle from now on.
  • I will treat my fuel situation as I would on our road trips and not push it to my limits. And I’m securing a collapsable gas can that I can keep in the car but still not take up too much of our precious small space.
  • Water and non-perishable snacks will be kept in the car at all times, not just by dumb luck.

Reality

It’s funny how much people worry about me when I take my mondo road trips. Yes, there are always hazards, but when I’m traveling like that I’m actually prepared to handle just about any scenario thrown at me. I’ve got shelter with me in the form of a tent and sleeping bags, I’ve got food and water, a stove and fuel, and extra clothing. I’m prepared to camp out anywhere for many days.

snowpocalypse - val in real life
One of two main reasons we got home safely… my Blubaru.

At home, that’s overkill and let’s face it, the scenario of being stranded in your own city and unable to reach home is extraordinarily rare. But I will be more prepared, if not ready to camp out for days on end. In a massive-scale shut down like we faced last week, we couldn’t get to supplies, shelter, or even bathrooms much of the time.

And I’ve always promised I would keep it real here on the blog so I’m going to live up to that because we’re all friends here, right? It’s not something people generally like to talk about and I’m sure many of you will be uncomfortable with the subject but here it goes…

On top of all of the stressors of our situation that night, I had to contend with being on my period. In the mayhem and traffic snarls, there was no just hopping off for a quick bathroom break. When traffic shut down in that last stretch towards home it was past midnight. Nothing would have been open anyway and I was jammed between other cars with no way to move off the road. Not to mention I would be hard-pressed to get back on if I’d tried. So yep… with the kids asleep in the car and not knowing when I’d be able to take care of myself again, I had to handle that situation and pee in a cup in the driver’s seat while we were stopped. I gave some dude in the car next to me quite a show but you’ve gotta do what you gotta do, right?

The truth is that this is a reality we women face in pursuit of our outdoor adventures. As much of a hassle as it is, we can be prepared even in those conditions. That came to the forefront of challenges in an emergency urban environment definitely caught me off-guard but there was no getting around it just because it was inconvenient. Trust me when I say it was one of the worst things to have to contend the whole night.

Blame

So a friend asked me if I was angry about the situation like so many other people. Not at all. Our leaders made some bad moves and probably didn’t respond as quickly as they should have but I’m not angry. In the end, I’m responsible for my family’s safety and I didn’t respond very well either. There were countless things I could have done differently from beginning to end that would have had a much better result for us.

Obviously Atlanta needs a serious re-evaluation of our emergency protocols but, more importantly, we have to assess the larger picture of sprawl and lack of adequate public transportation that leaves us completely reliant upon personal vehicles. We hung ourselves out to dry and we all have a responsibility to be a part of changes that will improve our both our day-to-day and emergency situations. We are not exempt from bad scenarios but we can certainly minimize their impact.

snowpocalypse - val in real life
I’m happy to say Blubaru made it through unscathed and sporting only a new icicle goatee.

Hometown pride

In spite of the 15-hour ordeal for us, we were extraordinarily fortunate. Obviously, I pushed my luck many times throughout the night. Prudence would have said find a place to stay but again, that wasn’t as easy as it looked to folks not on the road.

In a highly stressful scenario, I’m very proud of Atlantans. I personally would have been much worse off if not for a generous man helping out one person at a time. Most of the drivers were calm and reasonable. People pulled together to help out complete strangers, inviting them into their homes for shelter and safety. Business opened up as emergency shelters. I witnessed very few negative situations. I can honestly say the good far outweighed the bad last week.

val in real life
Imagine the perplexing thought that I’m more prepared to be out here than in my own city.

 

Comments

  1. First and foremost, I am very glad you all made it home safely – and that Disapproving Beagle was not bladder-burst!! (He is my favorite web dog.) I appreciate you writing this – it must have been a harrowing experience. I felt for everyone stuck out there (my commute of 3 miles was one hour plus but no complaints here…). I wholeheartedly agree that 1. I will not rely on govt for my well-being; I never have; I pity those who think that is a good idea. 2. Atlanta needs better public transport but left to our dear county govts (esp. the ones who hate MARTA trains…) that would mean dedicated bus lanes which in situations like last week is plain stupid. We need the state to take over metro ATL transport, over-rule counties and get money to fund rapid expansion of rail transit. OK, I may be missing some finer points in that opinion but something along those lines! All that said, I agree Atlantans shone even if the city looks ridiculous to others. And I, as a proud local, do not care – lots of great acts of kindness. And, again, glad you all were safe!!!

    1. Thank you Raul. I’m an independent person as you know but I did trust the governmental decisions about not closing schools in this particular case. Given their tendency to over-react with gusto, I let my guard down and trusted that it was not a dangerous situation. Won’t happen again, trust me.

      But yes, we’ve known for a long time that our transportation system is a nightmare and that fixing it is going to be painful… maybe that’s why we’re mired in this endless loop of poor planning. Bandaids over problems instead real forward-thinking solutions and changes. Coordinating that effort across so many agencies and municipalities is a Herculean task, no doubt. And everyone wants solutions but no one wants to pay for them. It’s going to cost some money up front but it will save us much more in the end.

      And it’s going to take us getting involved… supporting smart initiatives, voting for leaders who will make it a priority, attending planning meetings, making our voices heard, and making changes to our personal habits that are a part of the problem. Otherwise we have no room to complain. Much like what I tell my kids when they complain about what’s for dinner even though I give them ample opportunity to get involved and help create something they like, yet they don’t.

  2. I really enjoyed this read, including the lessons learned. I’m glad it worked out and added to your wisdom. Thanks for sharing so that we could learn from it too.

    1. Yep. Hard lessons learned but they were learned. There are so many people here blaming leadership. The leadership did fail but so did the rest of us. We all made our own decisions about heading out that day and we don’t get to play victim. Across-the-board failure that we’re all responsible for.

  3. WOW. I read this whole thing the other day and then sat on it for a while trying to figure out what I wanted to comment on. To begin with, I get that weather impacts different places in different ways, but I think that is mostly due to the way that we prepare and respond to it. I was reading about families being stuck on the road for days, kids sleeping on school buses (!?!?), and pregnant women unable to get to the hospital after just TWO inches of snow… and I was reading this as 10 more inches fell around my office in Colorado.

    I’m sorry, this isn’t a “time when we should have protected ourselves” this was a – possibly deadly – shortfall on the part of the road maintenance department. Here’s how it works in most places… there is a possibility of snow, so the city/state/county starts salting a bit before. When the snow starts, they salt more. Salt keeps the ice from forming on the roads and it SAVES LIVES.

    It’s not socialism or some loss of “personal responsibility” to expect the *owner of a road* to be responsible for keeping it clear and safe to drive on.

    1. Thanks Kate… the problem here is that it doesn’t make sense to keep tons of equipment around to prepare for such rare events. This wasn’t so much of a weather problem as it was as an urban planning one. Atlanta is plagued by sprawl and the difficulty of coordinating countless municipalities over a huge area. And the onslaught of millions of cars at once choked the roadways. There was no way for our infrastructure and equipment to handle it so I don’t blame the road owners for not being able to keep up.

  4. Oh and PS… I’m so glad you all made it home and safe. It sounds like such a terrible situation and I was so happy to read that you made it through ok. 🙂 You all are so tough and amazing!

  5. Wow. What a read! Atlanta sounds much Perth, Western Australia in that everybody cries out “STORM” when they see a cloud in the sky, and we also have a huge urban sprawl so when a drop of rain falls, the traffic slows right down. I can’t see things here ever getting to such a life threatening situation as yours, but then I guess neither did you! It is incredible how a simple drive home from school turned into this!

    1. Yes, Perth sounds very much like Atlanta… and many other cities, for that matter. It was a wild ride, that’s for sure. I learned a lot though and have made changes in my own personal approach to being out-and-about here.

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