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Traffic was snarled near Perimeter Mall as snow fell upon the Atlanta region Tuesday afternoon. A state official initially said the roads were not "terrible" by 3 p.m. Photo credit: Eric Stirgus/AJC. Traffic was snarled near Perimeter Mall as snow fell upon the Atlanta region Tuesday afternoon. A state official initially said the roads were not "terrible" by 3 p.m. Photo credit: Eric Stirgus/AJC.

Traffic was snarled near Perimeter Mall as snow fell upon the Atlanta region Tuesday afternoon. A state official initially said the roads were not "terrible" by 3 p.m. Photo credit: Eric Stirgus/AJC.

Nancy Badertscher
By Nancy Badertscher January 31, 2014
By Eric Stirgus January 31, 2014

GEMA chief wrong about traffic timeline

The response from one state official at a news conference about the chaotic aftermath to Tuesday afternoon’s traffic-snarling snowstorm astounded many in the room.

"At two and three o’clock (Tuesday), it still had not gotten terrible on the roads," Georgia Emergency Management Agency director Charley English said at a midday news conference Wednesday that was aired live on several television stations.

Gov. Nathan Deal, standing nearby, was asked if he agreed with English’s assessment. The governor politely said he did not.

"I was on the roads about that point in time, and it was getting to be gridlocked. The interstates were already experiencing major difficulties. Side roads that people were taking to get off were experiencing difficulties," Deal said at the Wednesday news conference. "So we all have some lessons we need to learn here."

The PolitiFact Georgia team, like many, thought English had misspoken. But perhaps the GEMA director had a fact-based point. We searched for some answers.

The snow began to fall over the Atlanta region shortly before noon Tuesday.

According to Deal, area roads were showing green on real-time traffic maps at 12:15 p.m. Tuesday, meaning traffic was moving smoothly. At 12:36 p.m., the roads were red, meaning they were snarled, the governor said in Wednesday’s news conference.

One important website supports the governor’s point.

At 1:25 p.m. Tuesday, the Georgia Department of Transportation’s navigator site showed nearly every interstate in metro Atlanta as red.

On the streets around Perimeter Mall, where The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and many large employers are located, firetrucks had trouble getting through. The roads were jammed with vehicles moving at a tortoiselike pace. In some parts of the region, such as Gwinnett County, traffic wasn’t as treacherous, officials said.

But in others, motorists and their insurance companies would likely dispute that conditions were anything less than "terrible."

Between noon and 3 p.m. Tuesday, the Georgia State Patrol reported being called to 341 crashes statewide and 91 in metro Atlanta. That was many times the number that state troopers worked just two Tuesdays before -- 28 statewide and six in metro Atlanta during that same three-hour period.

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Sandy Springs police Capt. Steve Rose said his city’s roads were gridlocked by shortly after noon Tuesday, and police were prioritizing and only working wrecks where people were injured.

And it only got worse. At 5:39 p.m. Tuesday, the state Department of Transportation tweeted that motorists should "stay off of highways as conditions continue to deteriorate overnight." By that evening, the interstate highways were completely stalled, if you could drive on them at all.

We contacted GEMA’s media affairs department around noon Thursday, asking for evidence to back up English’s statement.

About an hour after our call, English was backing away from his earlier remarks in a news conference aired live on CNN from the governor’s office.

"I made some inaccurate and regretful comments at the press conference Wednesday," English told reporters.

The director added in response to a follow-up question about road conditions, "Sure it was bad. There was terrible traffic."

English also said he waited too long to alert the governor’s office that the National Weather Service had issued a winter storm warning for metro Atlanta, conceding he put Deal "in an awful position."

A GEMA spokesman left us a message late Thursday saying English doesn't have any additional comments. The spokesman, Ken Davis, suggested we reference English's remarks from Thursday's news conference. 

Traffic maps, reports from law enforcement agencies and what we witnessed show it was pretty bad on metro Atlanta roads by midafternoon Tuesday. The conditions were worse that evening.

English might have had a better argument if he’d said the road conditions Tuesday afternoon were not as "terrible" as they were by nightfall.

English said Thursday his earlier comments, which were broadcast to millions of viewers, were "inaccurate." He did attempt to walk back his initial error. That is the only thing that saves him from PolitiFact Georgia’s lowest rating.

We rate English’s initial statement as False.


Our Sources

Atlanta Journal-Constitution Political Insider, "Nathan Deal’s well-controlled terrain becomes slippery," Jan. 29, 2014.

Email from Georgia State Patrol, Jan. 30, 2014.

Email from Sandy Springs police Capt. Steve Rose, Jan. 30, 2014.

Email and telephone message from GEMA spokesman Ken Davis, Jan. 30, 2014.

Gov. Nathan Deal news conference, Jan. 30, 2014.

Photo of Charley English from Georgia Emergency Management Agency website.

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