TLANTA – Days after a few inches of snow crippled the city, children are still home from school, icy highways are still littered with hundreds of abandoned cars and grocery stores are still running low on staples such as milk and juice.
Life in Atlanta probably won't return to normal until late Friday, when temperatures finally rise above freezing. But the city's helplessness in the face of a relatively mild winter storm raises a question: Should one of the South's largest population centers have been better prepared?
Frustrated drivers and stranded travelers couldn't help but lament Atlanta's too-little, too-late response.
"You've got the busiest airport in the world, and the snow they got we would have cleaned in a matter of minutes," said Wayne Ulery, an Ohio man who was stuck at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport for three days. "They used things that we use for our driveways here trying to get the airport cleaned up."
London and Heathrow Airport had similar problems recently. Hundreds of thousands of passengers were stranded in the run-up to Christmas after a five-inch snowstorm canceled flights and ruined holiday plans. The airport's embarassed owner had to launch an inquiry into why the snow halted traffic.
In Atlanta, city leaders are trying to take stock of the lessons learned. Mayor Kasim Reed said the next time a storm threatens, he will recruit more private contractors to supplement Atlanta's meager fleet of 10 snowplows, and he will put them to work sooner. He also said he won't wait for the state to clear main arteries within the city limits.
"We want to send a clear signal that we are working," Reed said at a press conference. "The last few days have been tough ... But we are not hiding. This is a no-excuses situation."
Critics said the city had plenty of warning that bad weather was on the way and should have been better prepared.
"The forecast was perfect," said state Sen. Vincent Fort. As early as Jan. 6, "we knew this was coming."
Fort said he will push the mayor's office to draft better emergency plans.
"I'm really disappointed with my city," he added. "Can we really allow our city to be paralyzed for an entire week if not more?"
State transportation officials were equally overmatched. To deal with the weather, the Georgia Department of Transportation tapped into $10 million in reserve money set aside last year. Spokeswoman Jill Goldberg said that money is probably gone after this week's storm and a smaller one last month.
"We've spent that, and we'll have to move some money around," she said. "In a normal year, that $10 million would have given us some padding. But we've had some big storms and long storms."
The state dispatched hundreds of pieces of equipment that dumped thousands of tons of sand, salt and gravel. Exhausted road crews worked around the clock to clear roads and highways. But for all their effort, many routes were impassable until Thursday, and some drivers were stranded for more than 24 hours on Interstate 285, which encircles Atlanta.
"We understand the frustration. We understand people think it should be cleared quicker, and they're anxious to return to their normal lives," Goldberg said. "But this wasn't a snowstorm — it was an ice storm. And we had an inch, an inch and a half of solid ice on our main roads."
After it paralyzed the South, the storm moved up the East Coast, dumping more than 2 feet of snow on parts of New England. But by Thursday, much of that region was swiftly getting back to its usual routine.
In Atlanta, roads were showing signs of improvement, too, as some antsy residents emerged from their homes for the first time since Sunday. Many interstates and major thoroughfares were finally moving again.
Still, there were plenty of hazards. Hundreds of cars ditched earlier in the week jutted out into traffic, blocking plows from clearing the sides of roads. Many subdivisions were still caked in ice. And police blamed the weather for the death of a 67-year-old man whose car collided with another vehicle and then slammed into a light pole.
A few businesses were showing signs of life, but many were still shuttered. Grocery stores were packed with customers, but supplies of milk, juice, eggs and fresh fruits and vegetables ran thin.
During the storm's aftermath, stores and restaurants struggled to stay fully staffed because many employees could not get to work.
Amanda Ayers, a manager at the Tavern at Phipps, was determined not to let the snow and ice disrupt normal business, even though about half her employees were stuck at home.
"We're open every single day of the year, and the last snowstorm we were open," Ayers said. "We didn't want to break the cycle."
Sam Williams, president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, was confident the region would rebound.
"Tractor-trailers will get back out. Shopping malls and grocery stores will be restocked," he said, calling the storm a "once-in-30-years" type of event.
Atlanta residents, long accustomed to the city's winter weather woes, are often embarrassed by the slow cleanup. Even so, many say the city cannot afford the expensive snow-response efforts of northern cities.
"Atlanta's just not prepared, and I can't blame it. It's hard to prepare for something so random," said Edward Mosely, 53, who left home for the first time in days to shop for groceries. "But when it comes, it really comes."
Anne Pippin, who works at the Internal Revenue Service in downtown Atlanta, said the city shouldn't spend money on equipment it will rarely use.
"This doesn't happen often," she said as she waited for a train at a subway station. "We can't afford to spend a quarter million dollars on each piece of equipment and have it sit around for 14 years."
But some people pointed out that other Southern cities fared much better.
Wally Kuku pulled out his Blackberry to show pictures of frigid snowscapes — and clear roads — from a trip he took Wednesday to the North Carolina mountains.
"It's funny how just a few days of snow can incapacitate this city," Kuku said. "It's totally absurd that we're totally paralyzed and they're OK."
Associated Press Writer Dorie Turner contributed to this report.
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