Gerber: The outrage of inconvenience

Gerber: The outrage of inconvenience

February 2nd, 2014 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

Stuck in car for 18 hours. Having to sleep at Home Depot. Children stranded overnight at school.

That's what happened in Atlanta and Birmingham last week. And, yeah, that sucks.

But let's get some perspective.

Atlanta had 85 homicides in 2012; Birmingham had 67 that year. In comparison, the Southern storm caused at least nine traffic deaths, including five in Alabama, two in North Carolina and one in Florida. Terrible and tragic, yes, but the violent deaths of dozens more in those cities did not create anywhere near the anguish and outrage from a snowbound traffic snarl that engulfed commuters for about 24 hours.

Of course, the snow and the huge mess it caused were a big story. No question. Even national news networks led their newscasts with the "disaster" in Atlanta (where there were no deaths on the road, according to Mayor Kasim Reed). But reading and watching the media coverage, you'd think there were as many dead bodies as cars abandoned on the city's roadways. "Overwrought" accurately describes much of the coverage.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter's account of her 18-hour commute home included this:

In line for the restroom, a woman with a nice coat and day-old makeup tries to sum up the experience of the last night but can't.

"I've never been through anything like this in my life," she said, as her voice cracked. "There aren't really words to describe it."

Really? No words to describe it? That's almost hard to take seriously (and obviously the woman with smudged mascara hasn't ever traveled in a developing nation).

Pitchforks were drawn and torches lit as cries for the heads of local officials rang out on TV, in print and on the Web. And that is a serious part of the story -- the sheer incompetence of those charged with public safety -- and it got lots of coverage. Someone should be held accountable for fumbling that ball.

But the truth is, for most people this was a day-long inconvenience. Aggravating, unsettling and exasperating, yes; but none of that is generally known to kill people or leave them with lasting scars.

This wasn't Superstorm Sandy or Hurricane Katrina or the tornadoes of April 2011. Hundreds died and billions of dollars worth of damage occurred in those weather events. Being stuck in traffic for a really, really long time is not the same as losing your house to Sandy, or being trapped for days in the sun on your rooftop with no food and water while the waters of Katrina rise around you. And it certainly doesn't compare to the death and destruction people here experienced during the April 2011 tornadoes.

Much of the media coverage focused on the outrage of suburban commuters who sat on roadways for hours. On some level, it isn't surprising that gridlock happened in Atlanta; the city is a poster child for non-sustainable growth and poor transportation planning. Traffic is bad in Atlanta on a good day. When the snow hit, schools, employers and government offices shut their doors at the same time, flooding the streets with thousands all racing to their cars, trying to get to their children's schools or to their homes. Snarl was inevitable.

But again, that's a first-world problem, a problem of convenience, of perspective. Do you think folks trying to stay out of the way of bullets and machetes in South Sudan or the 870 million people worldwide who are undernourished on a daily basis would look at the traffic in Atlanta and Birmingham and think, "Oh, those poor, wretched people?"

Social media and blogs didn't help. Stranded motorists posted updates to Facebook and tweeted about their boredom. Many wrote stare-at-my-belly-button blogs about the experience of spending hours in their cars (with their smartphones but without food) or about spending the night in big-box stores or supermarkets because they couldn't get home.

Comparisons of Atlanta interstates to "The Walking Dead," the zombie-apocalypse TV show, were plenty. And I actually saw one -- in all seriousness -- compare the gridlock to "The Road," the Cormac McCarthy book about a post-apocalyptic journey of a father and son that is perhaps the bleakest novel ever written this side of "1984."

A second layer to the story was the national media's ongoing sidebar that focused on those backward, bumbling Southerners who just aren't smart enough to steer in snow. Bless their hearts.

A friend from Dalton, Ga., posted a story from Business Insider about Atlanta's problems and commented: "I like how the article implies that it's just a little light snow causing all these problems, because it's more fun to imagine ignorant people who are just so befuddled by the white stuff that they automatically drive off the road when it starts falling."

Truth is, Southerners don't do well driving in snow. We know it; we laugh at ourselves about it (the same way we laugh at the way we run to the grocery store to buy milk and bread, as if the snow won't disappear until the spring thaw). But we hardly ever see snow -- or at least in amounts that cause problems -- so it's kind of like expecting us to know how to leap onto the back of a unicorn and ride it into the sunset.

Conversely, however, did we make fun of folks in other parts of the country who died in recent summer heat waves? If so, I didn't hear it. We know heat; we don't know snow.

So a little freak-out is to be expected when the white stuff falls. But the media shouldn't feed into that frenzy, ramping it up into something bigger than it actually is.

Snow is a pain, not a death sentence.

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Contact her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.