Atlanta weather | City, state reassess their responses to the storm

Characterizing the next two days as "crucial," Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said Thursday that the city has stepped up its snow removal efforts in advance of an Atlanta Hawks game, a boat show and the Atlanta Falcons’ playoff game Saturday night.

The city, which initially met the storm with 20 trucks, has increased it’s snow removal operation to more than 115 pieces of equipment, much of it hired from six private contractors, Reed said.

“We want to send a clear signal that we are working,” Reed said. “The last few days have been tough. I wouldn’t rate [our response] because we are still in it. But we are not hiding. This is a no-excuses situation.”

Similarly, Gov. Nathan Deal, who on Wednesday had defended the state's response in the face of AJC inquiries, altered his stance Thursday, saying the DOT will follow the city's example by hiring private contractors to help keep highways passable during future winter storms.

“Any time that you have the kind of long-term inability to move around our roadway, we should not be satisfied with that," Deal told WSB-TV reporter Lori Geary. "And I don’t think anybody can say we’re satisfied."

As the sun's warming rays did their work Thursday, clearing the roads in a way that the combined efforts of the region's governments could not, virtually all major traffic corridors and many side streets shed much of the coat of ice that had kept the metro area at a virtual standstill for four days. But even with more sun in the forecast, some ice will persist in the most heavily shaded areas, at least through Friday afternoon, posing threats to life and property.

The combination of ice and speed has already claimed one life, Gwinnett County officials announced Thursday. The driver, 67-year-old Carlos Rodriguez of Duluth, was killed late Wednesday afternoon when his 1999 Saturn skidded out of control on Breckinridge Boulevard, striking another vehicle and then a light pole. The other driver was not injured.

In deference to the danger posed by lingering ice, most school systems declared the week a total loss, postponing the resumption of classes until Tuesday, following the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Unless the state provides a waiver, school systems will have to decide how to make up the missed days, officials said.

Even with thousands of drivers still holed up at home, the area's interstates were choked with traffic Thursday because the Georgia DOT had cleared only a few lanes in each direction. DOT officials said abandoned vehicles were impeding ice removal in many spots and warned owners to retrieve their vehicles immediately or expect them to be towed.

Towing companies were scrambling Thursday to keep up with the demand. Northside Towing was getting “very, very bombarded” with calls, said operations manager Debbie Mau, adding that she's turning down requests from motor clubs like AAA to take more profitable retail customers.  Even so, she's only taking emergencies, she said: people stranded on roads, or blocking thoroughfares. Mau said she’s said no to as many people as she’s said yes to.

At A Tow Inc., CEO Page Porter said she has contracted the company’s service area to inside the Perimeter in order to safely serve as many people as possible.

In some basic respects, although life is looking increasingly normal, residents may still run up against unwelcome surprises as they resume their daily rounds.

Kroger trucks are back on the road, but advertising manager Lori Smith said shoppers shouldn't go to the stores expecting to find every item they're looking for. "We can't promise XYZ at every store today," she said. "It will take several days to restock."

At the Wonder bread outlet in Austell, Pat Roach said the store had not had bread since they ran out on Friday. That store is second in delivery behind grocery stores, she said.

At least at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, operations were back on track Thursday, according to Delta and AirTran representatives. However, Delta said it had canceled more than 200 flights system-wide due to the snow in the Northeast.

The airline said it expected to be able to get the last of the passengers stranded here by Atlanta's snow re-booked and to their final destinations Thursday.

Snow did delay the arrivals of conventioneers to two big downtown trade shows, but leaders and exhibitors said business was picking up Thursday.

“Yesterday (Wednesday) was definitely slower than normal,” at the gift show at the Americas Mart, said Ron Simblist, owner of Atlanta-based Simblist Group. “Today (Thursday) is more than making up for it. Business is booming and customers have arrived."

The gift show, with a usual crowd of 92,000 attendees, is Atlanta’s biggest convention. Americas Mart spokeswoman Tara King declined to speculate on how many people were in attendance Thursday.

As for the statewide economic impact of the lost days, Jeffrey Humphreys, director of economic forecasting at the University of Georgia, said it will be "marginal."

A “quick and dirty” estimate would be about one tenth of one percent of the state’s projected 2011 economy of $375 billion dollars. That means, he said, the storm cost the state between $300 million and $400 million.

He said one  reason the damage is not worse is that many people worked from home through technology that either wasn’t widespread or didn’t exist a decade ago.

“And even when you’re talking about production, most of that is not really lost. It will be made up over the next few weeks by people working harder.”

Dan Chapman, Arielle Kass, Leon Stafford, Jaime Sarrio, Laura Diamond, Kelly Yamanouchi, Ralph Ellis, Jeffry Scott, Janel Davis, Ariel Hart, David Wickert and Megan Matteucci contributed to this report.