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CNN "The Situation Room" - Transcript: Severe Weather Response in Atlanta to Snow Storm

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BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

GOV. NATHAN DEAL (R), GEORGIA: Nice to be with you.

BLITZER: So let's look ahead and -- and try to understand some of the major problems that occurred, because, you know, when I heard there were two, two and a half inches of snow and ice in Atlanta, I couldn't believe the pictures we were seeing. And I'm sure you couldn't either.

So what -- what are some of the major lessons you've learned from this experience looking forward?

DEAL: I think the major lesson is that we have to be more proactive at an earlier stage. Even though we had been led to believe that the majority of the storm would have been south of Atlanta, that prediction changed early in the morning of Tuesday morning. And it was important, I think, that we took it more seriously and made even more preemptive actions in terms of spreader trucks on the roadways and the de-icing.

Some of that did occur, but certainly not to the extent that later in the day became necessary.

BLITZER: Because that National Weather Service change in their forecast, going back, I think it occurred at around 3:38 a.m. So there presumably would have still been time to go ahead and cancel school that day, right?

DEAL: Well, the decision to cancel schools is not something that the governor has the authority to do.

(COUGHING)

DEAL: That is local...

BLITZER: Hold on a second...

DEAL: -- local school systems.

BLITZER: -- hold on, Governor. Hold on a second. I want you to get a little glass of water and swallow it and then your voice will be strong and we'll move on.

You have some water over there?

DEAL: I'm good.

BLITZER: OK, go ahead. So, you know, the decision -- you were saying the decision to close the schools, even though the National Weather Service changed their forecast at 3:38 a.m. You say what?

DEAL: Well, the decision to close schools is a decision by local school superintendents. Some of the school superintendents made the decision to do so. Most of those in the greater metropolitan area of Atlanta decided to go to school that day.

That obviously turned out to be a bad decision, but they were making the same decision that we had made at the state government level, the same decision that most businesspeople had made to allow their people to come to work.

So we all made errors of judgment.

I think the lesson to be learned is that we need to take action earlier and even if we are wrong in taking earlier action, it's probably better than not doing anything early enough.

BLITZER: Because you have to balance, as Brian Todd said, you have to balance the potential losses for those school districts if you close a day of school. And beyond that, if you close school for a lot of poorer kids who get their meals at school, if they're not going to have school that day, a lot of those kids are going to have trouble finding food to eat, isn't that right?

DEAL: That's true. And there are a lot of other consequences, as well. Of course, the consequences to businesses that depend on having access to their places of business and to have access for their employees to come to work, those have huge economic effects on the private community, as well.

BLITZER: Is Atlanta, the greater metropolitan area of Atlanta, ready for two and a half inches of snow and ice, in terms of plows and salting equipment, stuff like that?

DEAL: I think we have come a long way. As you may know, the last time we had a storm of this magnitude was in 2011. Actually, the storm on that occasion started on the Sunday night before I was inaugurated as governor on Monday morning.

So my first official act in office was to declare a state of emergency.

But having that one come on a weekend and at the evening hours, we were able to predict and tell school systems, obviously, not to open. But we didn't have that happen this year. It happened just shortly after noon on Tuesday. So the timing of it made it even more difficult.

And everybody started trying to leave town at the same time. And we have a lot of traffic on the interstates and the connectors to the interstate all around the greater Atlanta area. We have a lot of tractor-trailer traffic coming down our interstates and up our interstates and circling our city on...

BLITZER: All right...

DEAL: -- I-285.

BLITZER: All right, so let's go through some of the -- some of the problems that did develop, looking ahead, trying to make sure that we learn from these lessons.

The National Guard -- at what point did you, as the governor, decide that you wanted to activate the National Guard to help all these stranded folks out there?

DEAL: Well, our first decision was relating to the thing we thought was the most important, and that was the safety of schoolchildren. We activated the National -- National Guard. We activated the ad -- the services of our Georgia State Patrol. Schoolchildren were being taken off of school buses or buses were being escorted so that they could get either back to the school or complete the delivery of those children on their routes.

Our public safety concerns at that point were the safety of the children. And even though some children had to stay in their schools overnight, we had law enforcement personnel there and we have had no reports of any inappropriate activities...

BLITZER: Because, as you know...

DEAL: -- that occurred.

BLITZER: -- as you know, Governor, the National Guard, I don't think they really got involved until around midnight that night. The pictures that were coming in in the mid-afternoon, they were pretty horrendous, right?

DEAL: They were. It started, as I said, it started shortly after noon on Tuesday and got progressively worse during the afternoon. But the gridlock started fairly quickly. We did ask the National Guard to continue their efforts in trying to assist motorists. But the reality was that the interstates were simply at a standstill.

Now, since that time, what we have asked them to do is not only did they help escort school buses to get them out of the traffic, but today, and -- and yesterday, they have been assisted in trying to get people who abandoned their vehicles back to those vehicles.

Most of the interstates, in fact, I guess, all of the interstates are now fairly clear and many people's cars can be moved if we can get them back to their vehicles. So that's been a major focus today.

It is our intention that by tomorrow morning, there will not be any vehicles on our interstates or any way associated with blocking access to our interstates. We think that is an achievable goal.

BLITZER: I've got to tell you, Governor, when we heard stories -- you know, and we have a lot of colleagues at CNN, at CNN Center, where you are right now, and some of my producers were telling me it took them eight, 10, 12 hours to get -- to get home. And it would normally take a half an hour, maybe an hour, if that. And they were stranded and stranded.

You must have seen those pictures, heard all about that going on on Tuesday, as well.

DEAL: I did. And we recognized that at some point, we could not get all of them free to be able to drive clear. So we asked the National Guard to use their reserve supplies and to contact every vehicle that was stranded to see if they wanted to leave their vehicle, if they needed water or food or blankets. We tried to do everything under those circumstances that we could.

Many people did decide to leave their vehicles. Others decided to stay with their vehicles.

But under any circumstances, that long delay and a stalling of traffic was hard on everybody. And it is for that that I am most apologizing, because I don't want that to happen to any of our citizens.

LITZER: And there were a couple of technical problems, as well, that exacerbated the situation. Folks were reporting they were calling 911. They couldn't get through.

You've heard of those complaints, right?

DEAL: I have heard of some of those complaints. Most of those, of course, were going to local emergency management areas by people who were calling. They were calling the governor's mansion. And we were trying to do everything possible.

We actually sent one of the troopers who was in the vicinity of the governor's mansion to take a mother with a young four month old child and get them out of the traffic and get them to safety.

So it -- people did the kinds of things that you would expect good Georgians to do, and that is look after their neighbors and look after their fellow drivers.

BLITZER: You apologized today forthrightly at your news conference earlier today. Some people are criticizing you, though, saying what took so long?

DEAL: For the apology?

BLITZER: Yes.

DEAL: I actually apologized the -- the first day. And, you know, apologies are something that don't change the circumstances. What we intend to do is to change the circumstances, so in the event such as a similar event occurs in the future, that we will react earlier and that we will have the resources to be able to make an effective dent in that problem.

BLITZER: Are you going to fire anyone?

DEAL: I think it's way too early to be talking about firing anybody. I don't look for scapegoats. As I said earlier today, I think it's important that we identify what the problems are. We've already had a meeting with our major agency heads and we've asked the question of them, what would you do differently?

What do we need to do better?

And how do we go about making sure that we fill all of the holes for future endeavors?

BLITZER: Your Georgia emergency management director, he was very, very blunt. He admitted he made some major blunders. Later, you said he was adequate. His, over the years, his repu -- his history as the director was adequate and above adequate, which some are suggesting was less than an endorsement of his work.

DEAL: Well, he acknowledged, and I concur in his acknowledgement, that the information and the advice that we received from our Georgia emergency management agency was not appropriate. It was not timed early enough. We were asking questions from the governor's office starting that morning and we were wanting to take further action.

We were being told that further action was not necessary at that time, although about 10:00, I did issue the order as it relates to state employees, to say that they were on liberal leave policy and if it appeared to them that they needed to leave at that time, they should do so.

We had many of our state employees who did so.

BLITZER: Do you think he'll keep his job?

DEAL: You know, it's not appropriate for me to talk about that at this point in time. I am more concerned about asking him to come up with an action plan in the future that would avoid a repeat of these circumstances.

BLITZER: One of the problems that I discern -- I'm not an expert on Atlanta, by any means -- there are so many different constituencies, jurisdictions, if you will, the mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, what do you think?

How did he do?

DEAL: Oh, I think he did as well as he could under the circumstances. He was faced with the same situation that I was faced with. I thank him and I thank his people for working cooperatively with their counterparts at the state level. We were all doing everything possible to alleviate the problems that existed.

And those problems have, for most purposes, been completely removed, although there are still stalled vehicles and abandoned vehicles on some of the arteries leading to our interstates. That will be the next outreach beyond just simply clearing the roads and the side of an interstate. These arterial roads are the focus, as well, now.

And that's what both the city of Atlanta, as well as the state of Georgia, will be concentrating on.

BLITZER: A lot of other governors, a lot of other mayors are going to be studying what happened over the past few days in Atlanta, in the greater metropolitan area, because they want to learn lessons. They want to make sure this never ever happens again.

If -- and we're all smarter, obviously, with hindsight.

If you had a do-over, what would you have done differently?

DEAL: I think what we would have done differently is that we would have declared a state of emergency earlier in the morning.

BLITZER: That Tuesday morning, you mean?

DEAL: That Tuesday morning I'm speaking of, that's correct.

BLITZER: Like shortly after the weather forecast changed at 3:38 a.m.?

DEAL: Yes, but even after that point in time, we were still receiving messages that maybe all it was going to be was just a simple dusting and maybe up to an inch of accumulation in metro Atlanta.

Obviously, it was not a dusting, it was more than an inch, about a two inches to two and a half inches, and came within a very short window, which also made it more difficult to deal with.

BLITZER: How much of a wakeup call has this been for your state?

DEAL: I think it's been a big wakeup call. I think it is going to cause all of us to be more aggressive in terms of declaring states of emergency, in terms of deploying our emergency personnel, especially with our department of transportation. They had done some preliminary treating of the bridges and the overpasses that morning, but even that did not prove to be totally effective, because the temperatures were so low that when the melting occurred, refreezing followed it very quickly.

So it would have had to have been an ongoing treatment of the roads. And once the roads became clogged, we could not even get our D.O.T. trucks to be able to move through the traffic in order to give further salt and sand and other solutions to be applied to the roads. It was just totally at a standstill.

BLITZER: You're up for re-election this year. Are you going to run?

DEAL: Yes, I am.

BLITZER: And the major message you're going to tell voters out there as far as this incident is concerned is?

DEAL: That we had learned a lesson from this. We will be better prepared. And I think that we have responded appropriately. We got every child home as of yesterday. They did have some of the children that spent the night, on Tuesday night in their schools.

We had enough law enforcement present that there were no adverse reports of any problems from their staying there, but a lot of apprehension, as you can imagine, from parents and other family members about the safety of their children. We tried to make sure that they could be assured that their children were safe and they were.

We also, I think, have done a good job now of reuniting people who left their cars back to their vehicles so that they can, on their own, be able to get them and return them back home. That's an ongoing effort as well.

BLITZER: You're reopening schools tomorrow and you're hoping business is back to usual. Is that right?

DEAL: Well, I don't think that we're going to see all of the schools reopening. No. In fact, the announcements that I have seen just recently indicate that most of them will remain closed tomorrow because there are still side streets where buses have to run that are difficult to navigate. So, I would anticipate that we will see most of the schools probably close again tomorrow.

BLITZER: And when do you think there would be -- all the schools will reopen?

DEAL: Well, I think they will be able to be reopened on Monday. The weather forecast is that tomorrow is going to be sunshiny and that the weekend will be much warmer and that will help us more than anything else in order to be able to clear the ice and remaining snow that's on the roadways.

BLITZER: Governor Deal, I know you've had your hands full. You've come out and you've taken responsibility. You've apologized to the people of Georgia. We thank you very much for joining us here on CNN.

DEAL: Thank you. Nice to be with you.

BLITZER: And good luck to all the folks in Georgia. This has been an awful, awful ordeal for so many folks. But, it's important that we all learn lessons from this. Other communities are certainly going to want to hear some of those lessons to make sure they don't repeat some of these mistakes. Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia, thank you.

DEAL: Yes, sir. Thank you.

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