On Tuesday, snowfall of just over 2 inches shut down metropolitan Atlanta’s roads, schools, churches, government offices and businesses.  Thousands of flights were cancelled at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.  More than 2,000 school children were separated from their parents, and spent the night in buses, police stations, or classrooms.  It seemed that the only places open were Waffle House and Home Depot, the former serving hash browns and coffee and the latter opening up its stores as makeshift shelters.  People who didn’t camp out in supermarket aisles and hotel lobbies were trapped in cars for 10, 16, 20 hours as they tried to make commutes that normally take just 30 minutes.

Surely to everyone else in the world, the staggering sight of one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States brought to a standstill by a few flurries seemed comical at first.  Oh, those Southerners, they don’t know how to drive in the snow!   I watched on TV while driver after driver tried to get home from work Tuesday evening, their tires spinning 80 miles per hour as they inched forward a couple of inches.  Obviously, they never thought to shift into low and slowly creep forward without putting the gas pedal to the floor.

But before nightfall, the situation in Atlanta had grown more tragic than comic.  A baby was delivered by her father in a car on I-285, the “Perimeter” highway, that circles the city.  Parents en route to pick up kids dismissed from school early were stranded on highways.  The Facebook group #SnowedOutAtlanta contained desperate pleas from moms trapped in frigid minivans with toddlers and adults worried about their elderly parents—stuck without medications.

What happened in Atlanta this week is not just a matter of Southerners blindsided by unpredictable weather.  This snowstorm underscores the horrible history of suburban sprawl in this country and how ill prepared large metropolitan cities are when disaster strikes.

Atlanta the city has a population of just over a half a million people, bur the region that encompasses “Atlanta” is 28 counties and has a total population over 6 million.  So on Tuesday, as schools, businesses and governments, announced plans to close early, everyone who works in Atlanta headed for the freeways to get home or collect their children.  In a press conference Wednesday morning, Mayor Reed reported that one million vehicles were part of the mass exodus from downtown.  The problem was not just one of Southerners’ inability to drive on icy roads, but of too many cars headed for congested highways.  Minimal public transportation and limited coverage along with congested travel routes has made Atlanta and other metropolitan cities totally dependent on personal automotive use as their only means to move large numbers of people.

There was no coordination around school closings, because there are more than two-dozen city and county school systems in “Atlanta.”  There was little coordination between highway clearance and service to city streets because “Atlanta” is comprised of dozens of municipalities connected by state and federal highway systems.  Even the head of the Georgia Emergency Management Association, stated that there was no gridlock on the roads at 4:00 pm, totally unaware that many motorists had already been sitting on freeways for hours at that time. Mayor Reed even claimed that the city had done its part getting motorists out of down.  So, whether threatened by a dangerous storm, a major catastrophe, or just two inches of snow, they  need to have ways to get around, and out of, the city.