Gridlock Guy: How WSB Traffic covered Zeta’s effect on Atlanta

October 28, 2020 Atlanta: Here Atlanta Fire Rescue units shut down all lanes of westbound I-20 after a 4-vehicle crash on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020.. The rain Wednesday is made a mess of the Wednesday morning commute, according to the WSB 24-hour Traffic Center. Multiple crashes were reported before 6 a.m., including several on the Southside along I-75. The Traffic Center issued three red alerts for interstate shutdowns Wednesday, traffic reporter Mark Arum said. “If you have the option today to telecommute, work from home, I would do it,” Arum said. Georgia could experience torrential rain, damaging wind gusts in excess of 44 mph and even tornadoes, he said. Several metro Atlanta counties along Zeta’s predicted track are under a tropical storm watch, which has not been issued locally since Irma and Nate during the 2017 hurricane season. “We’re going to have a three- to four-hour window let’s say about 4 a.m. tomorrow morning to about 8 a.m. tomorrow morning where the weather is going to be really tough around here,” Channel 2 Action News meteorologist Brian Monahan said. “That’s going to be timed right through your morning commute.” Those north of I-20 will see the most impacts from the system, he said. According to Channel 2, up to four inches of rain could fall on the Northside by the end of the day Thursday. Monahan said Zeta will be rough on Georgia, but it will be brief. “It blasts on through,” he said. “By 8, 9 a.m. tomorrow morning, the worst of the rain has passed.” (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
October 28, 2020 Atlanta: Here Atlanta Fire Rescue units shut down all lanes of westbound I-20 after a 4-vehicle crash on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020.. The rain Wednesday is made a mess of the Wednesday morning commute, according to the WSB 24-hour Traffic Center. Multiple crashes were reported before 6 a.m., including several on the Southside along I-75. The Traffic Center issued three red alerts for interstate shutdowns Wednesday, traffic reporter Mark Arum said. “If you have the option today to telecommute, work from home, I would do it,” Arum said. Georgia could experience torrential rain, damaging wind gusts in excess of 44 mph and even tornadoes, he said. Several metro Atlanta counties along Zeta’s predicted track are under a tropical storm watch, which has not been issued locally since Irma and Nate during the 2017 hurricane season. “We’re going to have a three- to four-hour window let’s say about 4 a.m. tomorrow morning to about 8 a.m. tomorrow morning where the weather is going to be really tough around here,” Channel 2 Action News meteorologist Brian Monahan said. “That’s going to be timed right through your morning commute.” Those north of I-20 will see the most impacts from the system, he said. According to Channel 2, up to four inches of rain could fall on the Northside by the end of the day Thursday. Monahan said Zeta will be rough on Georgia, but it will be brief. “It blasts on through,” he said. “By 8, 9 a.m. tomorrow morning, the worst of the rain has passed.” (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

My wife Momo and I dodged a major mess last week here in our fair city. As we savored our delayed honeymoon in Hawaii, Hurricane Zeta was wreaking havoc on the Gulf Coast. And we watched it unfold on TV from our Waikiki hotel room in the overnight hours of Wednesday, October 28th. Zeta’s inland decrease in wind speed downgraded it to a Tropical Storm before it cut through Atlanta during morning drive that Thursday.

Just the threat of any kind of rain in drive time is enough reason for alarm in Atlanta. Drivers lose their minds when driving in the wet. But Zeta brought heavy rain and high winds. Many area schools and jobs closed for the day, since there were sure to be (and there ending up being) numerous power outages. Travel during heavy wind and rain and in the dark with debris in the road is also very dangerous for those who would actually have to go to a campus.

Marquee weather events make for marquee traffic events and while we hiked and beached on Oahu, the WSB Traffic Team shifted into full game mode. Morning drive WSB Skycopter anchor Smilin' Mark McKay had a unique view, as he led traffic reports on 95.5 FM.

“Power in my Buckhead neighborhood went out around 5 a.m., yet I was able to continue with live reporting during Atlanta’s Morning News with Scott Slade, thanks to my condo building’s generator,” McKay recalled. “From my 17th floor vantage point, I could see transformers blowing all across the top of the swaying trees that make up my skyline. The eerie lime green glow was constant and a bit jarring.”

Of course, the WSB Skycopter didn’t take flight that blustery, monsoon-like morning. “The heaviest winds blew into the Metro Atlanta area before dawn and reports of trees doing down added up in a hurry,” McKay said. But the WSB Traffic Team deployed all of its tools - police scanners, sensors on the Triple Team Traffic Alerts App, phones calls from motorists, phone calls to 911 dispatch centers, and social media - to paint the most thorough picture for those that had to travel in the aftermath.

Casting that wide net brought in literally dozens of storm-related traffic issues. As winds howled at 50 mph and buckets of rain poured, pools of standing water formed and, of course, wrecks started proliferating. Trees and wires came down knocking out power and blocking roads. “We had our share of huge trees fall on the interstates: one in West Atlanta on I-20/westbound knocking out two right lanes at MLK Junior Drive and one that fell on at least one vehicle on I-985/nb near Spout Springs Road in Hall County,” McKay explained. “The majority of the trees came crashing down in neighborhoods and subdivisions all across North Georgia. It made getting around challenging for a couple of days in some instances.” In fact, Cherokee County had at least three roads impacted with utility work at least four days after the storm.

McKay finally got a birds eye view from the Skycopter of the swaths of problems the next day. “The morning after the storm in the WSB SkyCopter told the story of the hundreds of thousands who were without power. Neighborhoods that we fly over every day were dark. No house lights, no street lights, no traffic signals. It was a patchwork of the haves and the have nots, with some neighborhoods looking normal in the predawn hours and the others hardly recognizable in the complete darkness.”

That phenomenon, in some ways, made covering the storm more challenging. There was widespread damage in pockets - no one area truly got hit the hardest. Everywhere got a little bit. And just as with any storm, there was no time to gather and announce every single road affected. But Ashley Frasca, Mark Arum, Veronica Harrell, Mike Shields, Alex Williams, Zach Grizzle, Jonathan Dockery, and David Hubbard hustled hard to find as many issues as possible and keep a running list on wsbradio.com and our Triple Team Traffic Alerts App.

And power crews were busy for days, even relying on help from other states, to get homes, businesses, and intersections back online. “Hats off to the power crews who are based here in Georgia and those who came in from adjoining states to help clear debris and get the lights back on,” McKay said. “On Monday, 11/2, we flew over what looked to be a staging area for those crews in the parking lot of the Atlanta Civic Center. It was a reassuring sight from 700 feet up that teamwork helped get Georgia back on its feet after the storm.”

Georgia could very well need another assist this coming week, as Tropical Storm Eta could track toward North Georgia. First responders, power crews, our WSB Radio and WSB-TV meteorologists, and the WSB Traffic Team will be ready.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin' Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com .

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