This time, Atlanta was ready when Old Man Winter came knocking.
In stark contrast to the Snowjam of two years ago — when a delayed and disjointed response by government officials was blamed for stranding thousands of motorists on icy roads — school systems, governments and transportation workers met the threat of a winter storm early and somberly.
When meteorologists began to utter the dreaded “s” words (sleet and snow), the lessons learned from the Jan. 28, 2014 winter storm swiftly became apparent.
Planning and coordination for this storm started two days before it arrived.
By the time rain and snow began falling Friday morning in far north Georgia, dipping down in metro Atlanta by the afternoon, Georgia Department of Transportation was ready to deploy an army of 600 workers with snow plows and brine trucks to pretreat roads.
“Over the last few years, we’ve certainly learned a lot,” said GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry. “Most fundamental is the Governor’s leadership of bringing all the agencies together with GEMA (Georgia Emergency Management Agency) at the helm, starting early and constant communication.”
Most school systems in the region announced cancellations or early dismissals. And state and local government officials were front and center issuing warnings to the public.
Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency in 21 counties on Thursday, well in advance of the storm. He announced that state government offices would be closed at noon Friday and encouraged municipal governments and businesses in affected areas to follow suit.
“We’ve been on the safe side of this and we’ll continue to be there,” Deal said. “I know there will be inconveniences that may not materialize. But if the weather does get worse, then we’ll all be glad we were ready for it.”
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed laid out the city’s emergency response plan at a news conference several hours before flurries began to fall. He announced that the closing of local schools, county and state government offices would be staggered to prevent a crush of traffic.
“I’ll take the story that says we overreacted, versus the folks on the highways saying we didn’t do enough,” Reed said. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Of course, it was a different storm and the timing of it was a “double-edged sword,” said GEMA Meteorologist Will Lanxton. Road crews had to contend with rush hour traffic as they worked to spread brine, gravel and salt. But once motorists got home, they could hunker down for the weekend and avoid traveling back out, Lanxton said.
A winter weather advisory remains in effect for 40 counties — including Barrow, Bartow, Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fayette, Forsyth, Fulton, Henry, Gwinnett, Paulding, Rockdale and Walton — until 7 p.m. Saturday.
The mere mention of snow is enough to send shivers down the spine of most metro Atlantans. And not just because of the cold.
Many still suffer from post-traumatic snow syndrome in the wake the 2014 dusting of 2.6 inches of snow that turned interstates into ice-skating rinks — at precisely the same time that hundreds of thousands of motorists decided to head home. The ensuing gridlock caused more than 1,200 wrecks and forced many drivers to abandon their vehicles to seek shelter wherever they could.
An angry public slammed Deal, Reed and other government officials for being poorly prepared. A task force set up by the Governor prepared a slew of recommendations, which were quickly adopted.
In just two years’ time, an arsenal of specialized equipment has been amassed by state and local governments.
Atlanta now has 23 spreaders, 32 snow plows, nine brine trucks and two brine makers. GDOT has more than 70 new snow plows, two new brine production facilities and nine new salt and gravel storage barns.
Emergency responders can monitor sensors embedded in pavement to detect ground temperatures and can tap into a network of weather monitoring stations.
The new equipment is likely to get more mileage before season’s end.
Weather experts say that this year El Nino, a weather pattern that recurs every few years, will dump more moisture than usual on western and Gulf states. Georgia has seen that already in its wetter-than-usual October and December months.
And that extra moisture — when coupled with a cold front — could enhance snowfall totals if Georgia gets hit with another storm in coming months, Lanxton said.
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Staff writers Katie Leslie and Greg Bluestein contributed to this story.