Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed risks permanent damage to reputation with snowstorm handling

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Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed hasn’t had a good week.

The 44-year-old has been battling criticism over the city’s response to a storm that dropped just inches of snow on Tuesday.

Within hours of the winter storm, motorists (not just in Atlanta but also across Georgia) endured epic traffic jams, long commutes on ice-covered roads and for thousands no way of getting home.

The paralyzing traffic was exacerbated by the closure of businesses, government offices and the early release of public schools, with parents hitting the roads — all at the same time — to collect children.

For many the question is how Atlanta, a major business hub with world’s busiest airport, could be so unprepared despite assurances that officials had learned lessons from a 2011 ice storm that brought the city to a standstill.

“I think it is incredulous that state and local leaders would say that the weather was unexpected,” says Sidmel Estes, a veteran journalist and adjunct professor at Clark Atlanta University. “I knew the night before that it was going to be a problem and cancelled a noon appointment, knowing the snow would be moving in around 1 pm.”

Stranded commuters were expecting concrete answers from Reed during his round of television interviews. The mayor did admit mistakes were made by failing to stagger the release of people from schools and businesses.

Still, Reed struck a defiant tone. On MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Thursday morning, Reed told anchor Mika Brzezinski, “Yesterday by 2pm, about 26 to 30 hours later, within the city limits our roads were 80 percent passable and the city was operational and functioning.”

The recently re-elected mayor was also quick to differentiate between his role and that of the state. He told Brzezinski many of the images and photos shown on TV networks are from “highways around the region” not from within Atlanta city limits.

When pressed to give a response as to who’s to blame Reed said, “I shared what I was responsible for. We should have made a different judgment about how we released our citizens as we got a million citizens out of our city.”

A lack of coordination between various agencies and officials resulted in everyone leaving their offices and schools at the same time, creating the horrific traffic jams.

Reed’s appearances on MSNBC and The Today Show comes a day after NBC’s weatherman Al Roker slammed the mayor and Georgia governor Nathan Deal for what he called “poor planning” ahead of the well-forecast snowstorm that paralyzed Atlanta and left thousands stranded overnight across the state. There are also been criticism the roads were not pretreated.

Andra Gillespie of Emory University says one of the reasons Reed and Governor Deal are on the receiving end of harsh criticism is this time around young children were involved. Thousands of children statewide slept the night at their schools because buses could not get them safely home and their parents couldn’t reach them.

“There are certain visual images that people are having a hard time dealing with. People were stranded for 15 hours and kids were stuck overnight at schools.”

“Atlanta doesn’t handle snow or ice well, but the apparent lack of planning multiplied the problem”, says Estes. “There is no excuse for what happened for the thousands of people trying to get home who were stranded and for the children who were forced to stay in school overnight.”

Still, Gillespie says the chaos that emerged does not just rest entirely Reed’s shoulders. “If (Nathan) Deal had declared a state of emergency earlier everyone would have taken their cue to shutdown.”

Reed, is rising star among Democrats, has until now has had an almost unblemished reputation. “This is a blemish on his record. But this is possibly more damaging for Deal, who faces re-election in November.”

Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter at @Kunbiti