Fearing that Hurricanes Rita and Katrina would result in a shortage of fuel, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue on Friday asked schools across the state to close their doors Monday and Tuesday in what he described as "early snow days."
Perdue requested the closures during an afternoon conference call with state school superintendents. Word filtered out to parents through the evening, dismaying some who said they would be left to scramble to find child care.
Perdue warned Georgians that Rita would affect "a significant portion" of the state's refining capacity and potentially interrupt fuel supply. He said he hoped that an array of conservation strategies -- including the apparently unprecedented measure of closing schools -- would avert a crisis.
"If all Georgians work together to reduce our demand for fuel over the next couple of weeks, we will have enough market power to push back and hold prices down," the Republican governor said.
Three weeks ago, in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, Georgians lined up to fill their tanks despite prices that rose 40 to 50 cents per gallon in a single day. Perdue quickly imposed price-gouging controls, saying he was "frankly embarrassed for our state and some of our businesses that we have to do this," according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
On Friday, he said he hoped to avoid another "wasteful and unnecessary gas panic" partly by implementing a range of short-term conservation measures. Among them was an executive order that state employees eliminate unnecessary travel and either telecommute or switch to four-day, 10-hour work weeks.
But it was the school closings that drew the most attention. Perdue said shutting the schools for two days would save more than 550,000 gallons of diesel fuel, as well as heating and cooling costs.
September is an unusually heavy usage period for diesel fuel because farmers move goods to market, said Richard Cobb, executive director of the Georgia Petroleum Council. Meanwhile, industries are turning to diesel because of shortages in the natural gas supply.
"Our farmers are having a difficult time," Cobb said. "The governor comes out of an agricultural background, and he's aware of it."
Perdue did not order schools to close, but said he expected "virtually every system to comply" with his request. Late Friday, it seemed that most schools would be shut. But officials in Floyd County in northwest Georgia said they would open their doors as usual, explaining in a press release that complying with the request "would not have given our parents enough advance notice to deal with child care issues for their children."
Tim Callahan, a spokesman for the Professional Assn. of Georgia Educators, called the plan "extremely disruptive." About 10,000 children who evacuated to Georgia after Hurricane Katrina have just started school and are "just starting to get a bit of normalcy in their lives," Callahan said. The association represents 61,000 schoolteachers and administrators.
As word got out Friday afternoon, "our phones lit up; our e-mail lit up -- people were totally taken aback," he said.
City officials in Atlanta met Friday afternoon to devise a plan to open the city's recreation centers for children who might not have another place to go, said Beverly Isom, director of communications for Mayor Shirley Franklin.
Perdue had been discussing the possibility of a fuel shortage for several weeks, but only over the last 24 hours did he receive information confirming those fears, said his press secretary, Heather Hedrick. He presented the plan to close schools "as quickly as was possible," she said. "This is not a decision made on Monday that was held until Friday."
Georgia law gives the governor the right to call for school closings because of fuel shortages, but staffers "can't identify a time when this has been done," Hedrick said. In his press conference, Perdue said the measures did not reflect a crisis, but an attempt to prevent one.
"The sooner you respond to situations like this, the less degree of response there needs to be," he said. "These are not the kinds of things we saw in New Orleans. We were not going to wait until there's a crisis to begin acting."
Parents took in the news at the end of the workday.
"I see, in a way, why he did it. The weather is messing with a lot of things -- gas, the economy," said Kesia Smith, 41, who got the news from her delighted 16-year-old daughter, an Atlanta public school student. Smith said her daughter planned to use the two days to study for a test.
But Lisa Hillman, a cashier at Atlanta Bread Co., had no such reassurance about her daughter, who is 14.
Maybe, she said, she could find a baby-sitter for those two days. Maybe she could leave the girl with her mother. In the worst-case scenario, she said, she would just stay home and risk losing her job.