ATLANTA (AP) — The head of Georgia’s emergency office helped plan for the 1996 Olympics and an international meeting of foreign leaders on the state’s coastline. He leads a national association of disaster planners and testified to Congress about the threat of cyberattacks. Yet a simple snowstorm could imperil his career.
Charley English wrote emails casually describing the approaching storm as a “winter weather ‘thing'” just as it hit, adding it would “be all better Thursday!” By his own admission, it was the wrong call. Not long after English sent that email, traffic ground to a halt on the icy highways running through and around metro Atlanta. Thousands of motorists and schoolchildren became stranded, sometimes overnight, in their cars and buses.
By Wednesday, English was briefing Gov. Nathan Deal on rescue missions and explaining how helicopters were ferrying supplies to the stranded. English has told at least one colleague that he may lose his job. Deal is looking to minimize the political fallout from the storm.
“I made a terrible error in judgment,” English told reporters Thursday.
Despite blaming weather forecasters, Georgia’s governor has said he is not looking for scapegoats. Still, he’s been harsh on English. Deal accused the Georgia Emergency Management Agency of giving him bad advice. He did not issue a ringing defense of his emergency chief, calling English’s service “adequate and above adequate.”
There also are political considerations. The Republican governor is running for re-election against two marginal opponents in the GOP primary and faces Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, who has already blasted the state’s response to the storm.
“He openly acknowledges he made a mistake in this instance,” Deal said Monday. “I think that most of us in our lives have made mistakes, probably not as obvious as maybe this one was.”
English caused a cringe-worthy moment for Deal at a news conference Wednesday by telling reporters he did not open an emergency operations center mid-afternoon Tuesday because “it had still not gotten terrible on the roads.” Deal gave a nervous laugh when asked whether he agreed.
“I’m afraid I don’t,” the governor said, “because I was on the roads about that point in time. And it was getting to be gridlocked.”
Deal’s administration is conducting reviews of what went wrong. English has told one colleague that he knows he could lose his job.
“He seemed to be, I won’t say great spirits, but he’s coming along,” said Bryan Koon, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management and vice president of the National Emergency Management Association, a group mainly for emergency management directors in all 50 states. He spoke to English on Friday and Monday. English is president of the association. “… He’s going to continue to do his job until he no longer has his job.”
Some of those who got stuck are calling for a degree of leniency. Trish Bruce, 35, got stuck in traffic for about 8 ½ hours before abandoning her vehicle on an ice-slicked interstate because she felt it was too dangerous to continue driving. She unsparingly described the state’s performance as a “complete cluster.” Still, Bruce said it was premature to fire English, especially because no one died in incidents directly connected to the gridlock.
Trish said her opinion might change if the state bungles another storm response.
“We did not see any trucks. It was just a barren wasteland where we had to fend for ourselves,” she said. “It’s not the government’s job to get us home. But it is the job to assist when they boast about, ‘We have this many trucks, we have this weather station.’ Well, that’s great. Now implement it. And also, be proactive.”
Deal and other officials had promised the state would be ready after a 2011 snowstorm similarly paralyzed the city. That snowstorm began just a day before Deal was sworn into office.
English, who has declined interviews, has a background in civil service, not politics.
He started working as a police officer in 1980 and served with Clayton County’s police force, south of Atlanta. He then oversaw the state’s regional police training academies before getting hired into the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, working as deputy director of operations at a state government command center for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. As part of his job, he had to respond to a bombing at Centennial Olympic Park that left two dead and more than 100 injured. He’s headed the agency since 2006, overseeing the response to tornadoes, floods and other storms.
“Charley is as near nonpolitical as anyone you could find in state government,” said former GEMA Director Gary McConnell, who hired English. “He’s a good guy. He means well. He’s a good coordinator and he just wants to do his job.”
Among the biggest problems was the failure by Georgia’s government to realize the storm was heading for metro Atlanta. Forecasters began cautioning over the weekend that a storm would bring snow and ice to Georgia, though early projections showed the worst of it passing south of the city. However, by daybreak Monday, the National Weather Service warned that roads in Atlanta could be treacherous.
A GEMA deputy director offered to cancel a trip to Washington, telling English that there were “a lot of possibilities with this storm.”
“Thank you,” English said. “Sure is warm outside.” The deputy director wrote back, saying he was not optimistic it would stay that way.
It appears that Deal’s office was getting anxious. Despite the forecasts for Atlanta, emails show English and others were heavily focused on the possibility of icy roads south of the city.
“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,” Deal’s chief of staff, Chris Riley, wrote in an email to English on Monday afternoon.
English offered to call minutes later and sent some forecast slides from the National Weather Service.
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