How Atlanta's History Helped Set the Stage for This Week's Weather Debacle

A crisis decades in the making.

Image
Reuters

Rebecca Burns, an editor at Atlanta Magazine, has a smart piece in Politico Magazine about the long-running forces in metropolitan Atlanta – the region's balkanized power structure, its over-reliance on cars and sprawl, its under-funding of public transit – that converged this week to turn a modest snowfall into a crippling emergency.

Her key paragraph:

What happened in Atlanta this week is not a matter of Southerners blindsided by unpredictable weather. More than any event I’ve witnessed in two decades of living in and writing about this city, this snowstorm underscores the horrible history of suburban sprawl in the United States and the bad political decisions that drive it. It tells us something not just about what’s wrong with one city in America today but what can happen when disaster strikes many places across the country. As with famines in foreign lands, it’s important to understand: It’s not an act of nature or God—this fiasco is manmade from start to finish.

If the scenes this week of National Guardsmen escorting schoolchildren home in fact prove some kind of awakening for the region, change will be exceptionally difficult and slow. Metropolitan Atlanta can no more redesign its infrastructure tomorrow (or re-frame its political priorities) than New York City could climate-proof itself in the months after Superstorm Sandy. In both cases, locals must work with the places that have already been built. And that work will take decades.

It's also possible that Burns' history lesson won't be widely embraced, or that it will be quickly forgotten. Already, it's tempting just to blame the governor.

Top image: Tami Chappell/Reuters

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.