Tom Watkins, CNN
ATLANTA (CNN) — Two days after snow began to fall — and a day after many Georgians, including hundreds of schoolchildren, finally made it home — the state’s governor apologized Thursday for what many saw as an insufficient and too ineffective response.
Gov. Nathan Deal told reporters he was “not satisfied” with how his state dealt with the 2.6 inches of snow plus the sheets of ice that it turned into, leading to massive gridlock throughout the metro Atlanta area. In addition to students stranded at school, many drivers camped out in their cars or abandoned them by the hundreds along thoroughfares big and small.
“I accept responsibility for the fact that we did not make preparation early enough to avoid these consequences,” Deal said. “… I’m not looking for a scapegoat. I’m the governor, the buck stops with me.”
Speaking later Thursday with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Deal said “we all made errors in judgment” and that “the major lesson is we have to be more proactive.” That means taking action like declaring a state of emergency earlier on — even if it ends up being a false alarm, relatively — and making sure the resources are available to deal with such a crisis.
“Apologies are something that don’t change the circumstances,” said the governor, a Republican running for re-election in November. “What we intend to do is change the circumstances.”
At the earlier news conference, the state’s director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, Charley English, acknowledged having made “a terrible error in judgment” in not having opened the emergency operations center six hours earlier than he did.
English said he first talked to the governor about how serious the situation was becoming at 9 or 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, some six hours after a weather report indicated that the storm warning had been upgraded.
“I got this one wrong,” he said. “I made the decision not to do anything until later that morning.”
In the future, when forecasts, change, GEMA and the state team it coordinates will respond more aggressively, he said.
Asked whether he planned to resign, English said, “That’s not my call.”
Asked whether he planned to hold English accountable, Deal said, “We will hold people accountable, but we also hold people accountable for what they are going to do to prevent it in the future.”
The news conference was the latest effort by public officials in the area to dig themselves out from under an avalanche of criticism over the paralysis that resulted when the weather went South.
“I’ve hauled cars for 18 years, 48 states and Canada,” Greg Shrader, a truck driver from Maine, told CNN on Wednesday after sitting in traffic for 27 hours before giving up on what should have been a 3-1/2-hour trip.
“I have never been failed by officials like I have here. Still no equipment, no well-being check. No plan. I guess they’re waiting for it to melt.”
His view was shared by others.
“I’ve lived in Atlanta since 2001, and I have NEVER come across a situation where the city was so unprepared,” CNN iReporter Jay Hayes of Smyrna wrote.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, Mike Luckovich, depicted Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed responding to the snowfall by making snow angels.
Other critics asked why lessons learned after Atlanta’s glacial response to an ice storm in 2011 that shut the city for four days had not had an impact Tuesday.
Reed cited the mass exodus of Atlantans from the city as largely responsible for the resulting gridlock.
“We made an error in the way that we released our citizens,” he told NBC’s “Today.” “I think it would have made a major difference” had releases started from schools, followed by private businesses and then by government offices.
“Lack of experience certainly plays a role,” he said in response to a question. “We don’t have severe weather events like this often in the city of Atlanta or in Georgia.”
AJC columnist Jay Bookman offered measured support for Deal and Reed, but expressed frustration over the incident. “Once again, metro Atlanta has proved itself spectacularly incapable of handling a small weather setback, in this case a two-inch snowfall,” he wrote in a column published Wednesday. “The fact that it comes just three years after another such failure certainly doesn’t make it easier to accept. But the appearance of incompetence and lack of preparation was offset — at least to a degree — by the way the two leaders handled themselves under fire.”
Tow, tow, tow
Meanwhile, efforts were under way to clear the roads of vehicles that were abandoned Tuesday. Beleaguered commuters — many of them still sleep-deprived and seething — showed up at two locations Thursday to get chauffeured to their vehicles by members of the National Guard driving four-wheel vehicles.
Towing of the remaining abandoned cars was expected to begin around 9 p.m. Thursday.
A-Tow, which runs more than 40 trucks in metro Atlanta, hauled 200 vehicles Wednesday.
In Alabama’s Shelby County, just south of Birmingham, hundreds of vehicles remained abandoned on country roads Thursday, the Sheriff’s Department said.
In North Carolina, at least 600 motorists called police to say they had crashed their vehicles or abandoned them.
The icy weather took 10 lives across the South, five of them in Alabama and others in North Carolina and Mississippi.
The Mississippi Highway Patrol said Wednesday it had responded to more than 600 traffic accidents after the bad weather hit.
In Georgia, state Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner Ralph T. Hudgens’ office estimated that claims would reach $10 million, spokesman Glenn Allen told CNN.
In Atlanta alone, police received more than 7,500 calls to 911 during the 26 hours after the snow began to fall.
The crisis dragged on far longer than many would have liked. It was not until Wednesday evening — more than a day after the snowfall began — that Deal announced that all of metropolitan Atlanta’s schoolchildren had gotten home.
The sun was expected to finish Thursday afternoon what city officials could not as temperatures across the South rose above freezing.
But the disappearance of the ice is not likely to erase the memories of its impact for Amy Anderson, who was stuck in her car with her husband when she went into labor.
As a police officer looked on, Anderson gave birth to a daughter, whom she and her husband, Nick, named Grace.
“It was a pure blessing that everything went well, that we were both healthy and doing great,” the new mother told CNN’s Piers Morgan on Wednesday. “When we gave her the name Grace, it just fully explained the whole situation. Just by the grace of God that we all came out healthy.”
The weather affected Darshay Jones’ delivery, too. Emergency responders were en route to her house in Birmingham, Alabama, when they got involved in a wreck, CNN affiliate WBMA reported.
Police Dispatcher Keniquia Rutledge said she instructed Jones to stay calm and breathe.
“She asked me, ‘Have you ever done this before?’ I said, ‘No. We are going to learn this together,’ ” said Rutledge, who then coached Jones and her boyfriend through the birth.
The baby, named Wynter, was doing well Thursday at a hospital.
CNN’s Greg Botelho, Ben Brumfield, Kevin Conlon and Devon Sayers contributed to this report.