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."
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed responds to a pointed question about the city's response to the snow storm as Gov. Nathan Deal looks on, during a news conference Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014 in the Governor's office at the State Capitol in Atlanta. A rare snowstorm left thousands across the U.S. South frozen in their tracks, with workers sleeping in their offices, students camping in their schools, and commuters abandoning cars along the highway to seek shelter in churches or even grocery stores. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ben Gray)
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."
In Montgomery, a Birmingham Democrat even took to the Senate floor to praise the Republican governor for directing help to Jefferson County once the storm shifted north.
"The governor should get kudos for what he's doing in this situation," said Sen. Rodger Smitherman. "The moment it hit, they started shifting things back to our county."
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."