After snow, mayor and gov play delicate blame game

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After snow, mayor and gov play delicate blame game
In this photo taken with a fisheye lens over the city's perimeter highway known as "Spaghetti Junction," the ice-covered interstate system shows the remnants of a winter snow storm that slammed the city with over 2 inches of snow that turned highways into parking lots when motorists abandoned their vehicles creating massive traffic jams lasting through, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, in Atlanta. While such amounts of accumulation barely quality as a storm in the north, it was enough to paralyze the Deep South. (AP Photo/David Tulis)
In this view looking south toward downtown Atlanta, the ice-covered interstate system is empty after a winter snow storm slammed the city with over 2 inches of snow that turned highways into parking lots when motorists abandoned their vehicles creating massive traffic jams lasting through Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, in Atlanta. While such amounts of accumulation barely quality as a storm in the north, it was enough to paralyze the Deep South. (AP Photo/David Tulis)
In this aerial photo, abandoned cars at I-75 headed northbound near the Chattahoochee River overpass are piled up in the median of the ice-covered interstate after a winter snow storm , Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, in Atlanta. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said early Wednesday that the National Guard was sending military Humvees onto Atlanta's snarled freeway system in an attempt to move stranded school buses and get food and water to people. Georgia State Patrol troopers headed to schools where children were hunkered down early Wednesday after spending the night there, and transportation crews continued to treat roads and bring gas to motorists, Deal said. (AP Photo/David Tulis)
In this view looking at I-75 north at Moors Mill Rd., motorists get out of their vehicles to chat near abandoned cars along the ice-covered interstate after a winter snow storm slammed the city with over 2 inches of snow that turned highways into parking lots creating massive traffic jams lasting through Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, in Atlanta. While such amounts of accumulation barely quality as a storm in the north, it was enough to paralyze the Deep South. (AP Photo/David Tulis)
Some secondary streets are still covered with ice two days after a winter snow storm slammed into the South snarling traffic and disrupting services, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Tulis)
Two days after a winter snow storm slammed into the South snarling traffic and disrupting services, a damaged truck pointed against traffic, awaits a tow on Interstate 75/85 south of downtown Atlanta, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014. Many motorists abandoned their vehicles and proceeded on foot when roads iced over. (AP Photo/David Tulis)
In this view looking at Cobb Parkway at I-285, abandoned cars are piled up on the median of the ice-covered road after a winter snow storm slammed the city with over 2 inches of snow that turned highways into parking lots creating massive traffic jams lasting through Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, in Atlanta. While such amounts of accumulation barely quality as a storm in the north, it was enough to paralyze the Deep South. (AP Photo/David Tulis)
In this aerial photo, traffic is snarled along the I-285 perimeter north of the metro area after a winter snow storm, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, in Atlanta. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said early Wednesday that the National Guard was sending military Humvees onto Atlanta's snarled freeway system in an attempt to move stranded school buses and get food and water to people. Georgia State Patrol troopers headed to schools where children were hunkered down early Wednesday after spending the night there, and transportation crews continued to treat roads and bring gas to motorists, Deal said. (AP Photo/David Tulis)
Heliodoro Martinez, left, is helped back to his car by Jamie Garcia after abandoning it overnight when it slid off the road due to winter weather, pictured Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, in Norcross, Ga. (AP Photo/John Amis)
A truck blocks all east-bound lanes of Interstate 285 in Sandy Spring, Ga. after htting an icet patch of road. Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, in Atlanta. Some interstates remained clogged by jackknifed 18-wheelers Wednesday afternoon, more than 24 hours after snow began falling on the city. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 29: An abandoned car sits along an I-75 South exit ramp during the winter storm January 29, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia. Drivers and kids on school buses were stuck in their vehicles overnight as the wintery weather and accidents snarled roads and highways thoughout the region. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 29: An abandoned Atlanta Public School bus sits in the ice on Howell Mill Road during the winter storm January 29, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia. Drivers and kids on school buses were stuck in their vehicles overnight as the wintery weather and accidents snarled roads and highways thoughout the region. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 29: Cars sit along the side of along Interstate 75 in icy conditions January 29, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia. Thousands of motorists were stranded, many overnight, as a winter storm dropped three inches of snow, and ice made driving hazardous. (Photo by Scott Cunninghaml/Getty Images)
@FOX6Traffic the car went up in flames but the owner was ok. http://t.co/lNNvZNvVgj
Vehicles make their way around a beer delivery truck that slid off county road 25 during a snow storm which hit the south, Tuesday Jan. 28, 2014 in Wilsonville, Ala. A winter storm that would probably be no big deal in the North all but paralyzed the Deep South on Tuesday, bringing snow, ice and teeth-chattering cold, with temperatures in the teens in some places. (AP Photo/Hal Yeager)
Truckers are informed that US highway 280 has been shut down in Childersburg, Ala. Tuesday Jan. 28, 2014. A fast-moving, unexpectedly severe winter storm blanketed much of Alabama with a treacherous layer of frozen precipitation Tuesday. (AP Photo/Hal Yeager)
Vehicles travel on US highway 280 as snow begins to make driving conditions difficult Tuesday January 28, 2014 in Chelsea, Ala. A fast-moving, unexpectedly severe winter storm blanketed much of Alabama with a treacherous layer of frozen precipitation Tuesday. (AP Photo/Hal Yeager)
RT @ProtectiveLife Hwy 280 from Protective Life http://t.co/Efop0xtNBZ
Vehicles are backed up on a snow covered US Highway 280 during a snow storm, Tuesday Jan. 28, 2014 in Chelsea, Ala. A winter storm that would probably be no big deal in the North all but paralyzed the Deep South on Tuesday, bringing snow, ice and teeth-chattering cold, with temperatures in the teens in some places. (AP Photo/Hal Yeager)
RT @jonwilliams2222 Helena http://t.co/oIvZBwcMCO
Vehicles are backed up on a snow covered US Highway 280 during a snow storm, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 in Chelsea, Ala. A fast-moving, unexpectedly severe winter storm blanketed much of Alabama with a treacherous layer of frozen precipitation Tuesday, causing multiple wrecks, stranding hundreds of children in schools and coating palm trees with ice at the beach. (AP Photo/Hal Yeager)
Vehicles are backed up on a snow covered US Highway 280 during a snow storm, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 in Chelsea, Ala. A fast-moving, unexpectedly severe winter storm blanketed much of Alabama with a treacherous layer of frozen precipitation Tuesday, causing multiple wrecks, stranding hundreds of children in schools and coating palm trees with ice at the beach. (AP Photo/Hal Yeager)
January 28, 2014 Atlanta: Traffic inches along the Connector as snow blankets the At;anta on Tuesday afternoon Jan. 28, 2014, as seen from the Pryor Street overpass. Interstates were clogged as commuters ended their workday early. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution,Ben Gray)
A City of Jackson employee places road barriers up while traffic drives around them near downtown Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014. An arctic blast spread across Mississippi with below freezing temperatures and treacherous driving conditions. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Traffic creeps along Interstate 55 in north Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, as ice and snow flurries cause difficult driving conditions. A severe winter storm is expected to hit the state, bringing ice and snow to the Gulf Coast. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
A cyclist tries rides without his hands in north Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014. An arctic blast spread across Mississippi with below freezing temperatures and treacherous driving conditions. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Traffic moves slowly as snow begins to accumulate on I-65 on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Clanton, Ala. A rare storm left a slippery layer of ice and snow across a region unaccustomed to dealing with the wintry threat. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
A truck slides as he tries to avoid another wrecked truck as snow begins to accumulate on I-65 several road closures in Alabama on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Clanton, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
A truck slides as he tries to avoid another wrecked truck as snow begins to accumulate on I-65 several road closures in Alabama on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Clanton, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
A truck slides off the road as it tries to avoid another wrecked truck as snow begins to accumulate on Interstate 65 near Clanton, Ala., Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014. The southern half of Alabama shut down Tuesday because of a rare storm that left a slippery layer of ice and snow across a region unaccustomed to dealing with the wintry threat. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Traffic backs up as a wrecker pulls a car out of a ditch on I-65 during an unual snow Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Clanton, Ala. A rare storm left a slippery layer of ice and snow across a region unaccustomed to dealing with the wintry threat. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
The snow covered statue of late Georgia Governor and U.S. Sen.Richard B. Russell points the direction for a pedestrian as she makes her way past the state capitol while snow begins to accumulate Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)
A water fountain is covered in ice as a pedestrian walks up 14th street, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014, in Atlanta. Georgia's coldest temperatures of the week are expected early Friday morning, with lows in single-digits in much of the state. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A pedestrian makes her way along a downtown sidewalk with traffic snarling behind her as people try to beat the snow accumulating on the streets Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Atlanta. Georgians stocked up on ice-melting chemicals, school systems closed, and road crews prepared to clear snow and ice from highways as a winter storm took aim. (AP Photo/John Amis)
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By JAY REEVES

ATLANTA (AP) -- When the snow started falling Tuesday and cars lined up on the highways, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed were at an awards luncheon, smiling and back-slapping each other as the Republican governor introduced the Democratic mayor, who was named a local magazine's "Georgian of the Year."

Just 40 minutes earlier, the mayor declared via Twitter: "Atlanta, we are ready for the snow."

Within hours, the metropolitan area was in gridlock with tens of thousands of people, including some children on school buses, stranded on icy, wreck-strewn roads. Two days later, the ice was thawing, the children were home and abandoned vehicles were being reclaimed, yet Deal and Reed have scrambled to explain how it all happened after the National Weather Service - despite the governor's claims to the contrary - clearly warned of a dangerous scenario.

Both men have played the blame game delicately, perhaps knowing political futures are sometimes made or squashed by storm preparations and response, and that the city that has a long and painful past of being ill-prepared for nasty winter weather.

Reed, who recently began his second term, holds ambition for a statewide run, possibly for governor. Deal is running for re-election this year, and Democrats believe he is vulnerable.

On Thursday, the governor offered his clearest apology yet. He acknowledged he was sleeping in wee hours of Tuesday morning when the National Weather Service upgraded its warning for the entire metro area, and he said his administration didn't prepare well enough.

"Certainly things could have been done earlier," he said, pledging a full review of the state's emergency planning. "We will be more aggressive. We will take those weather warnings more seriously."

Since the storm, Deal and Reed have mostly alternated between qualified apologies and defensive explanations about what they do and don't control, each of them carefully avoiding explicitly pointing the finger at the other, a reflection of their odd-couple political alliance on projects like a new downtown stadium and deepening a key port in Savannah.

The governor offered perhaps the most bald-faced excuse, at one point referring to "an unexpected winter storm" and saying that "national forecasters" were wrong. The mayor has said it was a mistake for schools, business and government to close around the same time Tuesday, forcing several million people into a frenzied commute around the region before salt-and-sand crews had treated roadways. Once people were stuck, they became nearly impossible to treat or plow.

Reed has also noted the city was not directly responsible for the interstates, and many of the wrecks and scenes of gridlock on national television were outside the city altogether. Both men insisted they don't "control" the decisions over whether to cancel school.

Deal explained the preparations were based on earlier National Weather Service forecasts that predicted the worst of the storm passing between the metro area and Macon, in the center of the state.

Yet a review of the National Weather Service advisories showed the agency published a storm watch for part of Georgia on Sunday. By daybreak Monday, the watch extended into metro Atlanta.

"Snow covered roads could make travel difficult," forecasters wrote. "If you can change your travel ... do so before the event starts. Now is the time to plan... Do not wait for the warning!"

The watch was upgraded Monday afternoon to a warning for south metro Atlanta, and the overnight forecast - released at 3:38 a.m. Tuesday - extended that warning to the entire metro area, beginning at 9 a.m.

Yet it appeared government officials didn't fully grasp the scope of the impending weather. Deal's chief of staff, Chris Riley, sent an email Monday around 3 p.m. that suggested some unease from the governor's office. It sought more information from Charley English, the chief of the state emergency management office.

"Everyone keeps trying to tell me how bad the weather is going to be but I keep saying if the weather was going to be bad, Charley would have called and he hasn't called me," Riley wrote, according to records obtained by The Associated Press using Georgia's open records laws. English offered to call minutes later.

Deal mentioned English directly when discussing the mistakes Thursday, and the chief said he had "made a terrible mistake and put the governor in an awful position."

Whatever the fallout for Deal and Reed, they have plenty of examples of politicians whose careers met a turning point due to a disaster. President George W. Bush had sagging approval ratings before voters resoundingly approved of his work in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

But Bush saw the other end of the spectrum four years later with Hurricane Katrina. Bush and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, never recovered politically from the public disapproval over government's response after the storm.

Weather disasters in particular become a "crucible moment" for politicians, said Bob Mann, a Louisiana State University professor who worked for Blanco in 2005. That differs from a scandal like what New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie faces for his administration forcing a bridge closure and resulting traffic jam as political retribution.

"Not everyone in New Jersey experienced that," Mann said. "But something like a hurricane or a snow storm, everybody is impacted, and they take it more personally."

In Birmingham, Ala., the weather was just as bad, and at least twice as many students (11,000) spent the night at schools there compared with Atlanta, but the backlash was much different.

Angry parents vented on social media and talk radio about meteorologists who blew the forecast by predicting central Alabama would get only a trace of snow and experience no travel problems.

The National Weather Service and TV forecasters acknowledged the foul-up. A joint visit by Birmingham Mayor William Bell, a Democrat, and Republican Gov. Robert Bentley to an elementary school with trapped students was more a love fest than a confrontation.

Weary teachers who had to spend all night with students clapped and cheered when a laughing Bentley said: "They need to give y'all a vacation."

For Reed and Deal, their political futures will depend heavily on the Atlanta-area voters who compose a majority of the state's 10 million residents. The northern suburbs in particular are a boon to many Republicans, and Deal did extremely well there in 2010. Conversely, those areas are key for Reed, a black Democrat who can't depend exclusively on the increasing strength of minority voters and urban liberals if he hopes to win statewide in a GOP-leaning state.

As for the luncheon, Deal said it was appropriate for him to be there.

"I did not eat lunch there," he said. "I stayed only a minimal period of time, left immediately after I introduced him (Reed) and canceled everything else we had that day to concentrate on this issue."

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