published Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Georgia emergency chief feeling gridlock pressure

Traffic is snarled along the I-285 perimeter north of the metro area after a winter snow storm on Jan. 29 in Atlanta.
Traffic is snarled along the I-285 perimeter north of the metro area after a winter snow storm on Jan. 29 in Atlanta.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ATLANTA — The head of Georgia’s emergency office helped plan for the 1996 Olympics and an international meeting of foreign leaders on the state’s coastline. He leads a national association of disaster planners and testified to Congress about the threat of cyberattacks. Yet a simple snowstorm could imperil his career.

Charley English wrote emails casually describing the approaching storm as a “winter weather ‘thing’” just as it hit, adding it would “be all better Thursday!” By his own admission, it was the wrong call. Not long after English sent that email, traffic ground to a halt on the icy highways running through and around metro Atlanta. Thousands of motorists and schoolchildren became stranded, sometimes overnight, in their cars and buses.

By Wednesday, English was briefing Gov. Nathan Deal on rescue missions and explaining how helicopters were ferrying supplies to the stranded. English has told at least one colleague that he may lose his job. Deal is looking to minimize the political fallout from the storm.

“I made a terrible error in judgment,” English told reporters Thursday.

Despite blaming weather forecasters, Georgia’s governor has said he is not looking for scapegoats. Still, he’s been harsh on English. Deal accused the Georgia Emergency Management Agency of giving him bad advice. He did not issue a ringing defense of his emergency chief, calling English’s service “adequate and above adequate.”

There also are political considerations. The Republican governor is running for re-election against two marginal opponents in the GOP primary and faces Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, who has already blasted the state’s response to the storm.

“He [English] openly acknowledges he made a mistake in this instance,” Deal said Monday. “I think that most of us in our lives have made mistakes, probably not as obvious as maybe this one was.”

Deal’s administration is conducting reviews of what went wrong.

Deal and other officials had promised the state would be ready after a 2011 snowstorm similarly paralyzed the city. That snowstorm began just a day before Deal was sworn into office.

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