Metro Atlanta officials say they’re ready for Old Man Winter

Abandoned cars sit idle along Northside Parkway in Atlanta Jan. 30, 2014. State agencies used four-wheel-drive vehicles to take motorists back to their vehicles from two metro Atlanta locations to retrieve what the GSP numbered at nearly 2000 abandoned vehicles. (AJC File Photo JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM)

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Abandoned cars sit idle along Northside Parkway in Atlanta Jan. 30, 2014. State agencies used four-wheel-drive vehicles to take motorists back to their vehicles from two metro Atlanta locations to retrieve what the GSP numbered at nearly 2000 abandoned vehicles. (AJC File Photo JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM)


Better prepared

State and local governments in metro Atlanta say they’re better prepared for big winter storms than in the past. Here’s some of what they’ve done.

State

*The Georgia Department of Transportation has installed pavement sensors to detect temperatures in 15 locations around metro Atlanta, as well as one in Macon and 11 in North Georgia.

*The state has 70 new snow plows, bringing the total fleet to 385.

*The state also has nine new salt and gravel storage locations, for a total of 30 statewide, which will allow for quicker, more targeted response. Three of the new facilities are in metro Atlanta — on I-675 at I-285; I-285 at U.S. 78; and on the Buford Spring Connector at Sidney Marcus Boulevard.

Atlanta

*In August Atlanta hired a new emergency preparedness coordinator to work with city departments and other governments.

*The city has a new mass-notification system to inform people who live and work in Atlanta about weather and other hazards. The system sends alerts via phone, e-mail and text message.

*Atlanta tracks and shares the status of road treatments in a new geographic information system.

Cobb County

*The county has added 50 new traffic cameras – bringing its total to 130 – that allow it to monitor road and traffic conditions.

*Cobb has added more spreader trucks to treat roads. In 2011 it had four; now it has 10.

*Cobb has added automatic vehicle locators in all equipment, allowing it to track plows and spreaders. That allows the county to divert the closest truck to respond to emergency calls.

DeKalb County

*This year DeKalb expanded its fleet of spreaders and plows from 12 to 16.

*The county works more closely with schools on school closing decisions.

*DeKalb uses the Code Red emergency alert system to share information by e-mail, phone and text. It’s also in the process of getting the National Weather Service’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System.

Fulton County

*The county has worked with its 14 cities and the National Weather Service to ensure better communication during inclement weather.

*Fulton has also strengthened communication across its own departments.

*The county is updating its hazard mitigation plan, which governs how it responds to a variety of emergencies.

Gwinnett County

*Gwinnett now participates in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s wireless emergency alert program, which allows residents to receive emergency information on their cell phones.

*The county has established special teams of employees to keep roads clear near police and fire stations, hospitals and other critical facilities. That frees up regular Department of Transportation crews to concentrate on other roads.

*The county hosts special phone conferences among county, city, school and other local officials to discuss preparations as bad weather approaches.

Sandy Springs

*The city has nearly doubled the amount of salt and sand it has on hand since the last big storm in 2014.

*It also has added two spreaders – it now has five – and has doubled its fleet of plows to six.

*The Georgia Department of Transportation is responsible for state routes within the city, but often has other priorities. Sandy Springs has agreed to take responsibility for clearing Ga. 9 in the event of inclement weather.

Local governments across Metro Atlanta say they learned a lot about preparing for inclement weather from big storms in recent years, and they’re better prepared for Old Man Winter to come barreling into 2016.

That's good, because the National Weather Service says Georgia may see a cold, wet winter, thanks to a strong El Nino weather pattern. Conditions are ripe for the kind of storms that have brought Atlanta to a standstill in the past, making the region a nationally televised spectacle of dysfunction.

Emergency management directors, road maintenance supervisors and other local officials say they’re better prepared than they were in 2011 and 2014. They’ve stockpiled salt and sand. They’ve expanded fleets of plows and spreaders. Perhaps most importantly, they say they’ve improved communication across the dozens of jurisdictional boundaries that sometimes stymied a coordinated response in the past.

Ria Aiken, Atlanta’s emergency preparedness director, said she believes the city is better prepared. “Everything we have in place is really a reinforcement of some of the lessons learned.”

And, boy, were there lessons.

In 2011 snow and ice brought Atlanta to a standstill for nearly a week, shuttering commerce and halting travel. Governments spent millions to clear roads, but the shutdown may have cost hundreds of millions of dollars in lost economic activity.

In the aftermath, the Georgia Department of Transportation pledged a host of fixes, from staggering the shift changes for road crews to using more independent contractors to clear icy highways. But three years later, Atlanta failed another test.

Snowjam 2014 showed that 2.6 inches of snow could cripple the capitol of the New South. Traffic gridlocked as tens of thousands of people fled for home simultaneously. Interstates were jammed and motorists stranded for hours upon hours. Children were trapped in school buses or forced to spend the night in their classrooms.

The nation watched – fascinated and sometimes chuckling – while metro Atlanta suffered.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation showed the region's response was thwarted by poor state leadership and a lack of coordination among dozens of local agencies. Another round of hand-wringing and promises ensued.

Last November state transportation officials showcased new strategies and equipment – everything from pavement sensors to 70 new snow plows – saying they had advanced "light years" from the 2014 storm. Local officials also have been busy.

Some have bought new trucks, equipment or materials. DeKalb County, for example, has expanded its fleet of spreaders and plows from 12 to 16. Sandy Springs has nearly doubled its supply of salt and sand.

Others are trying to make better use of the resources they have. Gwinnett County, for example, has established special teams of employees to keep roads clear near police and fire stations, hospitals and other critical areas. That frees up county transportation crews to concentrate on other roads.

And Cobb County now has automatic vehicle locators that allow emergency officials to track plows and spreaders and direct them where they’re most needed.

But much of the new preparation involves better communication and coordination.

In Atlanta, Aiken’s job didn’t exist in 2014. But a task force recommended the new post – emergency preparedness director – and the city hired her in August. Now she works closely with city departments and other governments to prepare for various hazards.

City Manager John McDonough said Sandy Springs has worked more closely with Fulton and Cobb counties as well as neighboring Roswell. “We know each others’ plans and priorities,” he said.

Many governments have held “dry runs” and training exercises in preparation for winter weather. But the real test will come with the next winter storm. And if weather projections are right, 2016 could provide that test.

“It’s an El Nino year. We’re going to get more water than usual,” said DeKalb Emergency Management Director Sue Loeffler. “In winter, that water is going to turn to ice and snow for us.”

Local officials say they’re confident they’ll pass. But weather is unpredictable, and the stakes for Atlanta are high. Cobb Road Maintenance Division Manager Bill Shelton said governments must “plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

“Sometimes weather fools us,” Shelton said. “Sometimes Mother Nature wins.”