How ice storms turned Atlanta’s last Super Bowl into ‘a pure ghost town’

The NFL took nearly 20 years to forgive Atlanta for a freak weather pattern. This is the story of the legendary 2000 Atlanta Super Bowl ice storms — from the people who lived them.

Super Bowl XXXIV is remembered for having one of the best and most dramatic finishes of all-time. With five seconds left and 10 yards to get into the end zone, Kevin Dyson caught a would-be game-tying Steve McNair pass, only to be tackled one yard short of the goal line, his arm outstretched, by St. Louis Rams linebacker Mike Jones.

That play became an iconic image in NFL history — something that everybody remembers that Super Bowl by. But ask anyone from Atlanta about the city’s last Super Bowl, and it’s likely to conjure memories of fallen trees, sheets of ice, traffic jams, and blistering cold.

On January 23, 2000, a week before the game, an ice storm struck the metro Atlanta area. Rain and freezing temperatures are a bitter combination for any town, but they’re particularly tough on a major Southern city where cars are the primary mode of transportation. When a second ice storm hit just five days later, the city was nearly paralyzed.

This all took place while America was watching. The weather put such a damper on Super Bowl festivities that Atlanta wouldn’t get another Super Bowl for 19 years despite being one of biggest and fairest weather NFL cities in the country. Nearly two decades later, the Super Bowl has finally returned after the NFL forgave Atlanta — but only at a significant cost.

The first ice storm caught Atlanta off guard.

“Initially we were thinking it was going to be more extreme in northern Georgia, and maybe more of a snow event farther north, but it’s a cold rain in Atlanta,” says the Weather Channel’s Paul Goodloe. “And then the day before, we started kind of seeing the writing on the wall.”

The storm left 500,000 households, mostly in Atlanta, without power. “Customers could be a family of four, it could be an apartment building of 400. So you’re talking at least a million or more people in the metro area without power, and some didn’t get it back for that whole week.”

What made the ice storm particularly bad is that Atlanta is essentially situated in a forest. A recent study estimated that 48 percent of the city is covered by an urban tree canopy, putting it well above nearly every major city in the United States. That canopy is largely made up of pines. “You put ice on a pine tree, it’s kind of a brittle wood, not the strongest wood,” Goodloe says. “They come down, they bring the power lines down, they block roads, it was a mess.”

Still, there was more than a week to get the city ready for the game. If Atlanta had only had to deal with one bout of bad weather, it might never have earned the reputation that it had to live down for so many years. “Right up to the Super Bowl all of a sudden the models are saying, ‘You know, this cold air isn’t going anywhere. There’s another ice storm coming.’”

The second ice storm hit just two days before the Super Bowl.

It wasn’t nearly as destructive as the first, but it combined with the lingering effects of the first storm to make a bad week worse.

Heaters failed on the north-south line of Atlanta’s rail system — the Metropolitan Area Rapid Transit Authority, better known as MARTA — forcing MARTA to deploy buses to shuttle riders to stations from West End, west of downtown, and the airport. A train got stuck between Lindbergh and the Arts Center stations the day before the Super Bowl, trapping 200 people for two hours.

Atlanta is notorious for its traffic. Adding a sheet of ice to the mix resulted in a 47-car pileup on I-20 at Lee Street, the largest auto accident reported that week. Parts of I-20, I-85, I-285, GA 400, and other major roads had to be closed at different times.

 AFP/Getty Images
Cars driving slowly past a weather advisory sign on Interstate 85, one day before the 2000 Super Bowl in Atlanta.

Because of the transportation issues, Super Bowl festivities in Atlanta weren’t as alive as they should have been.

“I do remember going down to the NFL Experience with my wife at the time,” Goodloe says. “All the venues that were waiting for the throng of thousands of people enjoying the NFL experience, going out, eating out at restaurants, bars, the clubs.

“It was a pure ghost town the day before the Super Bowl.”

Things went a bit more smoothly for players, but preparation wasn’t easy.

Former Titans running back Eddie George says that half the team’s practice field at Georgia Tech was unusable because the turf was frozen.

“It affected our preparation in the fact that we couldn’t go full speed like we wanted to,” George says. “The ground was so hard that we had to use our turf shoes, we couldn’t use grass shoes. Typically we liked to get after it a little bit and compete, so it really took away from that aspect of it.”

George acknowledges that the situation wasn’t all bad, though. “It may have turned out to be good for us, because we really just had to focus on the cerebral part of the game and the mental part of it versus the physical.”

The weather didn’t stop George from getting in his regular routines. “I had my people come down from Nashville — my cook, my chef, my yoga instructor, my masseuse, massage therapist — I put them up all at the hotel so I could keep a regularly scheduled week.”

The weather was arguably more challenging for the Rams and Isaac Bruce, who were used to practicing indoors. They spent the week practicing at the Falcons’ facilities in Flowery Branch, which didn’t include a closed practice field.

“You got probably 60 guys out there practicing with two heaters, and I’m talkin’, it was in the teens,” Bruce says. “But we were able to put everything in that we wanted to put in offensively.”

Despite the conditions, nothing was going to bother George, who rushed for 95 yards and two touchdowns in the game. “It could have been a blizzard, hurricane, tsunami,” he says. “Nothing was going to distract me from trying to win the Super Bowl, it didn’t matter to me.”

The most lasting effect of the ice storms may have been how the NFL used them against Atlanta during the city’s subsequent Super Bowl bids.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Mark Bradley summed up in August 2017 what had become accepted knowledge prior to the opening of Mercedes-Benz Stadium:

It’s sometimes said, mostly by Arthur Blank employees, that MBS will “take Atlanta to a different level.” The cold truth is that we were already there. MBS will have more bells and whistles — it also will cost seven times what it predecessor did — and maybe Atlanta wouldn’t have gotten another Super Bowl after the ice storm of 2000. But the Dome did nothing wrong except age.

Atlanta’s Super Bowl-hosting dreams failed twice in a roughly 17-month span.

 AFP/Getty Images
A woman protecting herself against the weather while entering the NFL Experience in Atlanta on Jan. 29, 2000, one day before the Super Bowl.

Atlanta’s bid in 2005 for the 2009 Super Bowl included a promised $150 million in improvements to the Georgia Dome, as well as “meteorological data to show the ice storm was a freak event,” according to a 2005 report by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. However, Tampa was selected over Atlanta in May. Raymond James Stadium was older than the Georgia Dome, but Tampa is warmer in late January and early February than Atlanta. Advantage, Tampa.

The 2010 Super Bowl had originally been awarded to New York in March 2005 under the condition that a new stadium would be built. After the state voted down funding for that stadium, however, Miami was picked as the fall-back option in October 2006. When asked about what he’d do differently in his next pitch, Falcons owner Arthur Blank joked, “I would take Atlanta and move it to the Caribbean.”

The Georgia Dome was just 13 years old in 2005. “If you look at the last number of votes, it’s very clear the ownership feels strongly about having the game where the weather is generally warmer,” Blank said.

Atlanta can’t control its weather, so after losing those bids, it didn’t have many options if it ever wanted to host a Super Bowl again.

Now that Mercedes-Benz Stadium has been built, the Super Bowl has come back to city.

The host committee has been working for two years to ensure the city is prepared for anything and everything. Well aware of what happened in 2000, Atlanta host committee COO Brett Daniels says the city has prioritized weather preparedness.

“We’re doing a lot of planning and preparation with all of the venues to make sure that we already have equipment rented and on site should there be any foul weather to address, as well as materials like ice melt and things of that nature,” Daniels says. Those materials will be placed around the Super Bowl campus, which includes Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Georgia World Congress Center, and Centennial Olympic Park.

The committee has been in constant communication with the city, county, and state to make sure resources are available wherever needed. The Rams will be practicing in Flowery Branch, 45 miles from Atlanta, and the Patriots at Georgia Tech in Midtown.

“I feel confident that the city, the state, all of our partners here have come together with a great plan on how to manage and mitigate any real crisis related to the weather,” Daniels says.

When I ask if the host committee took any specific lessons from 2000, Daniels makes a good point: “Everybody’s learned a lot over the last five years probably more so than going back to 2000.”

Daniels is referring to the city’s recent winter weather events, but the 2014 Snowmaggedon sticks out. Thanks to a couple inches of snow, Atlanta suffered unthinkable gridlock when millions of people hit the road at rush hour to get home. The snow turned to slush and froze over into ice, forcing commuters to sleep in their cars, on the sides of roads, in gas station parking lots, and on the floors of stores like Home Depot and CVS.

Days before the 2019 Super Bowl bid was announced, another NFL owner asked how Atlanta would handle another ice storm. Blank said, “I reminded him that was 16 years ago and the weather in Atlanta, due to climate changes, it’s changed. So, it’s beautiful now. … We don’t think that will be an issue. I understand that was 1-in-100-years kind of freak stuff.”

Atlanta’s pitch included the walkability of the city, and a brand new stadium. The latter seemingly earned Atlanta forgiveness for the curveball Mother Nature threw years earlier. Finally, on May 24, 2016, Atlanta got the Super Bowl that Blank so badly wanted.

“I’m thrilled for Atlanta, thrilled for our bid team, thrilled for all the political leaders who have supported us along the way with a difficult (stadium) project in downtown Atlanta,” Blank said at upon receiving the bid at the NFL’s owners meetings in 2016.

Whatever the weather, Atlanta’s latest Super Bowl should go off much more smoothly than it did 2019.

But say another storm hits — Would Atlanta get left out of Super Bowl conversations yet again?

“I think we’ve got a great city, the infrastructure here, the walkability of the downtown campus, the great new stadium that we’ve got,” Daniels says. “There’s so many great things in place now to make this a success that I definitely think we’ll continue to stay in the conversation for future Super Bowls moving forward.”


Source: SBNation.com

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