Traffic is never, ever this bad. A combination of unpreparedness, bad timing, worse conditions than predicted, and novice drivers created a horrible situation for thousands of people in and around Atlanta this week. This is something of a personal post, as I was struck by many conflicting emotions throughout Tuesday and Wednesday, the duration of snowpocalypse in Atlanta and a large radius around it. The thoughts came and went as the hours passed, so I find the best way to understand them is to walk through the snowy chaos of this week.
Tuesday started completely normally, though I knew from the weather reports to expect it to be much colder and possibly snow a bit. Work was also completely normal: I had a meeting in the morning and continued from yesterday’s analysis. A few hours later, Georgia Tech started indicating that they were considering closing campus before the end of the day. My coworkers and I began discussing this (Does it apply to GTRI? Would we be out for the same length? Would we have to use vacation hours?) while GT officially said it would close at 1:30 PM. A coworker, Will, stepped into the conversation with his lunch, and while some people decided to leave, we ate before leaving, and I gave him a ride home at around 1 PM.
Traffic was bumper-to-bumper the entire way, from 10th Street to Hemphill to Northside Drive to Collier. I saw a lot of raw human behavior come out through these conditions: people sharing the road, giving space, or being selfish, taking risks. During this, and coincidentally in the morning before any snow, I kept noticing unnecessary honking and impatience. We spent over an hour to travel three miles, but the mood was light while we listened to and discussed the finer points of Weird Al’s lyrical prowess. Will lives near a Publix, and we stopped by to grab a few things while we were out. Him some items for a party over the weekend, me some hot chocolate to complete the wintry experience. (Later on I would be bothered by this lackadaisical treatment of what became a serious crisis for many.)
On the way back to my apartment, my mother called me to share that she was slowly making her way through traffic on the south end of Georgia Tech campus, coming from the aquarium. We talked about potential plans for her, from turning back to the aquarium, to coming to my place, to holding up in some restaurant. This was my first indication that things might be worse than just what I was experiencing. Only when I finally drove into my apartment complex on more untrodden road did I get a sense of the skiddy, icy conditions that so many others were suffering through, as I would learn. Once I got inside, it was around 3 PM.
I spent much of the afternoon playing a video game, perhaps significantly motivated by a desire to tune out what was happening around me. I remained on Facebook and with my phone charged to take any calls. My perspective on the situation in the whole of Atlanta was solidified when I looked at the traffic map of the local area.
It was then that I realized this was very, very bad. I don’t remember the order to all that happened that night, but I called my mom again, expecting her to be home safe, when in fact she had only made it about halfway down the highway and had pulled off to the side to stay in her car for the night, since she couldn’t handle the stress of navigating the roads. My sister had been sitting on a school bus for 2 hours before she finally got home. My dad stayed at his office and kept working. I talked to both of them for a bit to make sure things were okay. My brother was home the whole time, thankfully.
Also during the evening, my friend Katie Mae introduced me to a Facebook group for helping stranded people find shelter, warmth, and food. This put my sense of the situation into crisis overdrive, hearing dozens and dozens of people asking for help all over the city. This woman has a baby. This man is diabetic. This Target is kicking people out, this Home Depot will take them in. This church is open if the hotel’s full. This guy will be patrolling this area with PB&J sandwiches, water, and a truck.
I posted my location on the map and offered to take anyone in. No one ended up calling, but I was happy to at least provide that much. Being in the middle of the city, people can either get where they need to go eventually or stay in many places, like the hospital across the street.
It was during this time I spent online looking through this Facebook group that I felt my first major conflicting emotion. I was knee-deep in reading the worst of it, hearing and seeing stranded, cold travelers on I-75 and the great efforts people were going to to help them. Plenty of people were just fine or enjoying the weather, though, but this was easy for me to forget or lose perspective on. Going from cries for help to joyful comments about snow, pokes at our panic over 1 inch of it, or just random posts about anything else (since I have many distant online friends) was quite jarring and frustrating. And it’s not truly anyone’s fault, either. I was also amazed and confounded at the mess that happened, and a little too stressed to enjoy the snow itself. It’s actually a bit frustrating when you don’t have a single target to aim your anger at! It just sits and collects.
I appreciated being able to talk to some local friends about what I was feeling and hear their sympathies about it all. Thank you. They helped me know I wasn’t alone in my sentiments.
I was also perturbed by the amount of religious content in the Facebook group. It was all well-meaning and positive, “God blessing” people in thanks or making hopeful remarks with “I’ll pray for you”. But this created an increasingly thick layer of distance and distraction for me. I am entirely in favor of helping people no matter how they react to a crisis like this, but I was being swept up in this presumptive attitude that I agreed with their beliefs. That I, too, was acting on behalf of their god. It’s the way they phrase and use this language that shows they believe it to be present in everyone, and it makes it difficult to feel good about taking action when it is seen so differently by others. Like my charity is being co-opted.
The evening went on. I didn’t leave my apartment, especially given the traffic right outside and the difficulty of the roads. But I was unsure what I would accomplish in the first place, besides being another steel box in the way. My mom apparently started back home again, based on some Facebook updates, perhaps when the roads cleared a bit more. She got home around 2 AM. I went to bed soon after, playing my game and monitoring Facebook, my phone, and the traffic all night.
During that night, the morning, and throughout conversations I’ve had, I’ve begun to be very bothered by my internal motivations and thought patterns through all this. (Yes, moving away from fixating on motivations has been a major source of growth for me. But that doesn’t stop me thinking about it, and nor should it, to a degree.)
I was thinking about the people, cold, hungry, alone, in peril, out in the dark, wintery night, unable to return to a warmth and comfort similar to what I’m in now. I was thinking about the kindness I’d seen all evening and the togetherness the community expressed.
But an uglier, selfish part was too present in my head for my comfort: I had a bit of a hero-complex. I wanted to help someone and feel good about it. Or, if being a hero was too hard, I wanted a solid excuse to no longer care and play my video game. I wanted a clear conscience, or just to be decided. I was tired of this ambiguous, murky, “I could go, but what would I do, but I should, but where?” It was mentally draining, so I think I drowned myself in my game.
I believe that if we’re all honest, those selfish thoughts are present in some small part of nice things we all do. But even in writing this, reconsidering what I was focusing on and thinking about since Tuesday, I realize that my balance isn’t as bad as I was describing it. Talking to my mom as she detailed what was going on around her, and deciding what flavor of granola bar to eat for dinner before sleeping in an old sleeping bag in the backseat, strongly instilled in me a vivid image of what people were going through all along the sides of these frozen, paved lines of backed-up vehicles.
No matter the motivation, I still went outside on Wednesday just to check things out. I was pitifully prepared with some food, in case there were people in need around. I emptied a big salt container I had on the roads in my complex, as well. I have no idea if any of that was realistic or helpful, but I erred on the side of doing something, rather than absolutely nothing.
While I was outside walking around, I saw a family playing in the snow. I commiserated on the difficulty of building snowmen with so little. In my time enveloped in reading of stranded people on the highway, this was a needed balance to the entire experience that I’m happy to have been reminded of.
One last fascinating part to my experience these past few days was the game I was playing. Fallout 3 is an open world role-playing action game that takes place hundreds of years after nuclear war. Society could be possibly described as rebuilding, but chaos reigns over most of the world, despite pockets of lawful order.
A friend, Ray, commented Tuesday that he was shaken by how fragile our stable lives are. Government institutions, including schools, simply releasing people at the same time, combined with slippery, snowy conditions, caused the worst traffic jam and sheer mass of misplaced people that I have ever experienced.
So much of Fallout is about making choices that can help or hurt different groups’ influence and their philosophies on how best to run the fragmented, flimsy societies that exist. Towns survive on the thinnest of supply lines and defenses. Order and leadership are often overturned. Plus, there are also piles of cars in the game, too.
Situations like this these snowy conditions and day-long highway gridlock show just how chaotic the world can become when just a few factors confound each other. It felt oddly fitting yet futile to be escaping to a world much the same, but with more guns and less snow.
I’m left feeling more connected to the people around me and this shared experience we’ve had. …Some experiencing much more than others, of course. I hope to take this investment I’ve felt for my fellow man and woman and keep it outside of a crisis, to the people every day that need help. I wish to channel that energy I wished to give to the stranded of yesterday and today, to those of tomorrow.
I’m also more in-touch with gratefulness for basics, like food, comfort, and being inside. I chuckled and offered praise as I saw a woman in my complex write this in the snow. I felt it echoed a lot of people’s feelings and desires over the past few days. It’s a simple pleasure that not everyone could afford.
Finally, on Wednesday more sensible collections of thoughts and observations about the week surfaced that seemed to properly place the blame on the state/city government for not preparing for this properly. I found the following few sources helpful in describing what happened and why on the larger scale, for any interested: