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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Lessons from being frozen in, Atlanta style

We are thawing out from a winter storm debacle here in Atlanta. There is no question it was a truly awful experience for a number of people who were trapped on the highways for hours on end. On the bright side, I am not aware of any weather related deaths.

The finger pointing as to blame for this has been going on. The Mayor of Atlanta, the Governor of the State, and the heads of various agencies were all targets of the angry press. How we could learn so little from previous similar episodes and allow this to happen yet again. It was only three short years ago when Atlanta was buried for an entire week. I can also recall multiple other episodes in the past when ice or snow laid waste to our ability to function. Northern cities can deal with this issue. Why can't we?

I always like to tell my trainees that the key to management of patients and their diseases is expectation management. Remember, happiness = results - expectations. I think the public expectations for dealing with snow and ice for a southern city which gets a significant snow and ice event on average every five years should not be that it should be able to handle this like Buffalo New York. Northern cities invest huge sums of money in equipment, training, and people to deal with what is a common occurrence. For Atlanta to make a similar investment would be one  that would have a minimal ROI.

I listened to various leaders discussing their efforts after the fact. The city of Atlanta actually did a reasonable job of dealing with surface streets which may have actually ultimately worsened the gridlock (see below). The state DOT which was responsible for clearing the interstates made a strategic but understandable error. They pre-stationed equipment where they thought the storm was headed, south of the city. The computer models were unreliable since the conditions prior to the storm were very unique, not being seen since the advent of computer modeling of weather and the predictions from the National Weather Service were off. Yes some forecasters got it right but how was one to know they were the correct ones before the fact.

The storm hit very quickly and when EVERYONE left work at the same time, the clear city streets allowed them to rapidly get on to the interstate highways, creating gridlock so rapidly that the DOT equipment, which was not optimally placed could not be effective. The well salted surface streets likely facilitated rapid access to the interstates and perhaps worsened gridlock on these unsalted streets.

What can be learned from this? Complex systems are complex and unpredictable. I suspect that for the next 10 potential events, we will be closing schools and offices early, cancelling events, and have a low threshold for action. That will continue until there is a hue and cry that we are over reacting and being silly at which point we will revert to a less cautious behavior. The institutional memories will dissipate and we will have yet another snow and ice disaster followed by renewed finger pointing.

Good systems are compatible with bad outcomes. As we become more and more dependent upon technology and the ability to travel and have less and less reserve built into our systems, we become more prone to huge disruptions from unpredictable events like weather events.  It is simply bad policy for the public to demand their public money be spent on bad investments.  Atlanta could handle these events if they invested in fleets of snow plows which could sit idle for years on end. Because it makes no financial sense to invest heavily in the infrastructure to deploy low frequency contingency events (which are almost infinite in variety), we should expect that we are going to have some bad days. Not even big government (and perhaps especially big government) can stop us from having bad days.



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