Gov. Nathan Deal thanked staff members of a metro Atlanta high school on Tuesday for their work to keep some 450 students safe as they were stranded overnight in last week's snow.
Deal has been trying to make amends in the wake of the state's poor response to two inches of snow that resulted in tens of thousands of motorists stuck in their cars for hours and at least 280 students forced to sleep on their school buses because of icy, gridlocked roads.
Deal has apologized and this week announced the formation of a task force to develop recommendations on how the state can be better prepared and better equipped the next time severe weather hits metro Atlanta. He has also called for various internal and external reviews and wants a new public alert system for severe weather, similar to what's used for missing and endangered children.
"Last week was a tough week for a lot of folks," Deal told the group of educators at Westlake High School in unincorporated Fulton County. "You did an admirable job, and I think it's altogether appropriate for you to be commended for what you did. And we'll try not to let that happen to you again."
School cafeteria manager Henry Smith was among those in the crowd. He had come back to the school the evening of the storm after picking up his daughter at her school. That night he ended up serving 1,400 students chicken tenders and french fries for dinner, and then cookies and applesauce for a late night snack. School officials said about 450 students ended up staying overnight.
"It was kind of shocking at first, but I was just glad that I could come and do something to make things a little smoother for the kids," Smith said. "I felt like if we could give them a good, hot meal and keep things calm, everything would be great."
Smith said he appreciated the governor's visit and declined to assign blame. Some school superintendents have also faced questions about why they didn't cancel school the day of the storm given 1 to 2 inches of snow had been in the forecast for a place not used to dealing with it.
"Everybody can be a sideline coach and predict what you should have done, but I think under the circumstances we did what we had to do," Smith said.
Deal declined to talk about the future of the state's emergency management chief, who has faced criticism for not raising storm concerns earlier. Charley English has been with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency for 18 years, serving as director since 2006.
Two days after the storm, English apologized, saying he had "made a terrible mistake and put the governor in an awful position."
Deal said he met with English and other agency heads on Monday to discuss storm preparations, but the two didn't talk about English's future.