Political Insider

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Winter weather poses new challenge for Georgia governor

The winter storm that could dump as much as three inches of snow upon north Georgia this weekend will be yet another test of Gov. Nathan Deal’s weather response strategy – and his new pick to head the emergency management agency.

There was no immediate word early Thursday on Deal’s response to the gathering storm, in part because forecasting models keep shifting. But if his past responses are a guide, he’s likely to declare an emergency across a swath of north Georgia to free up state resources to prepare for the storm.

Deal has taken few chances after the poor communication and slow government response to the 2014 ice storm that transformed a dusting of wintry weather into an embarrassing disaster for Georgia. Deal and other state officials say they’ve learned from their mistakes.

A winter weather task force appointed by the governor has led to more equipment and more aggressive efforts to clear roads long before snowflakes fall. And Deal seems to have embraced a better-safe-than-sorry mantra, declaring emergencies and calling for workers to stay home when severe weather threatens.

That’s what happened when wintry weather walloped Georgia three weeks after that 2014 ice storm, and again in 2015 when a new round of snow threatened metro Atlanta. He declared 15 counties in north Georgia emergency zones and urged non-essential state workers to stay home.

And Deal used the same strategy in October to respond to Hurricane Matthew, which forced millions to evacuate and killed at least four people in Georgia. Using the word “cautious” several times to describe his approach, he urged coastal residents to escape the coming storm.

Hundreds of state emergency staffers were deployed near the coast days before the storm rumbled through. Pilots moved state aircraft to higher ground. And Georgia National Guard soldiers were called to duty.

Shortly after that hurricane, Georgia Emergency Management Agency head Jim Butterworth stepped down to take what officials said was a long-planned gig in the private sector. Emails obtained through a public records request also showed apparent turmoil among the agency’s top staff during the storm.

The state’s new top emergency official, Homer Bryson, is the former head of the state corrections department. In office for about a month, he’ll now have to confront his first big challenge.

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.