Because of a more-intense-than-expected winter storm, things were locked down across much of Alabama and Georgia Tuesday through early Thursday.
Just a few inches of snow and they are in a crisis, some of our neighbors to the north scoffed.
Stories about residents stuck in their cars overnight and children spending the night in their schools went viral.
Network news anchors pressed state and local officials in Georgia to explain how Atlanta’s main thoroughfares had turned into parking lots. (Of course, Atlanta’s roads look like a parking lot during rush hour in any kind of weather.)
We’re all about accountability when it comes to public officials, but a little context would help.
Yes, snow is rare in the South. Many Southerners are unaccustomed to driving on roads slickened by ice and snow. We panic easily. At the first sign of messy winter weather, many of us head to the store to pick up bread and milk. At this point, frankly, such observations are little more than trite cliches.
What’s all too real is that this week’s weather-related crisis had serious consequences that led to more than a handful of fatalities, hundreds of injuries and thousands of stranded motorists across Alabama and Georgia.
Yes, this is serious business. Could state and local governments here be better prepared to handle such a crisis? Of course. Poor planning among Southern state governments isn’t just reserved for chilly weather. Expecting the unexpected is not something our elected leaders are good at.
It’s fair to point out that Georgia and Alabama — like many states — have been in a budget-cutting mood for the past five years. Earlier this month, Gov. Robert Bentley bragged once more about trimming $1 billion in state-government spending. Selling the benefits of cut, cut, cut is easy for politicians, especially in conservative Alabama. Explaining what we’re losing with all this budget-trimming is rarely mentioned. We doubt few budget-cutters would be so excited about the savings if it meant Grandma might have to spend the night stuck on Interstate 20 or little Johnny couldn’t get home from school because the roads were closed.
That said, even if we had the money and were in a spending mood, it’s unlikely Alabama would have invested much in winter emergency equipment, any more than New York would have put in a tornado-warning system.
We’d prefer lesson-learning to finger-pointing. One big takeaway is further confirmation that the South is overly dependent on automobiles and lacks mass-transit alternatives. We have roads (though many aren’t well-maintained) and we have cars. Thus, it’s no surprise a sudden storm requiring millions of people to move from work or school to home caused a massive jam.
Another lesson is the blessing of competence in meeting people’s needs, something missing among Southern leaders.
State governments in Alabama, Georgia and elsewhere across the South are woeful in lowering infant mortality, decreasing teen pregnancy and educating children. Thus, this week’s crisis is what we should expect from a region where competence in government is in short supply.