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Atlanta weather | Wretched gridlock stretches into 2nd day

Gridlock on the interstates Wednesday continued to frustrate drivers still trying to get home on a commute that started Tuesday.

Winds started evaporating some of the ice along metro Atlanta interstates and arterials, but only marginally, and road conditions remained treacherous. Black ice was a concern overnight.

Meanwhile, police confirm that a Henry County teenager died in a Tuesday afternoon wreck on an icy road near McDonough.

In a Wednesday afternoon news conference, DeKalb County interim CEO Lee May said the 911 Center averaged 400 to 500 calls an hour since the storm hit. May said the county is “maintaining its roadways” and “meeting the needs of its citizens.”

David Baldwin, Marietta police spokesman, said while they had a number of minor injuries from traffic accidents and falls, there were no storm-related deaths or serious injuries and there were no “exposure injuries due to motorists being stranded for long periods of time.”

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“Officers transported hundreds of stranded people across the city to shelters and started to check on disabled vehicles to see if there were any occupants inside that needed help,” he said.

In Gwinnett County, as of Wednesday afternoon, crews had responded to 281 various calls, including 59 automobile vehicle incidents, authorities said. No major injuries were reported.

Georgia Department of Transportation officials are hopeful that despite temperatures remaining below freezing, radiant heat might be enough to warm the top layer of ice enough for snow plows to scrape it off.

But make no mistake, relief may still be another day away.

“I don’t think it will be dry,” said Kathy Zahul, a state traffic engineer. “As soon as the sun goes down, we’re going to be looking at icy conditions and we’re going to have to treat all night.”

Across the city, GDOT has partnered with local wrecker services to begin pushing abandoned cars to the shoulders of the roads, clearing the way for gravel and salt spreading dump trucks.

Tractor-trailers have been an enormous headache, clogging up interstates and requiring major equipment muscle and coordination to move.

GDOT Deputy Commissioner Todd Long surveyed a bank of video screens at the Traffic Management Center and pointed to example after example of tractor-trailer tie-ups.

“What’s in common in every single accident we have today?” Long said. “Tractor trailers.”

Long said that trucking companies appeared to have sent deliveries into the state even after the storm started, and he questioned whether there was legitimate need for them to be traveling inside the Perimeter. State law mandates that trucks stay outside the Perimeter unless they have intown deliveries or pickups to make, or unless they are going to a repair station or terminal physically located inside of I-285. Otherwise, all trucks traveling on I-75, I-85, or I-20 must take I-285 around the city,

“They could be making deliveries, but it’s hard to believe they would be when most of the businesses are closed,” Long said.

Students remained stranded at schools, as commuters lucky enough to make their way to makeshift shelters woke up in churches, fire houses and stores that remained open all night to provide a warm place to stay as temperatures plummeted into the teens.

As Atlanta’s traffic nightmare stretched into Day 2, state transportation officials advised drivers who made it home to stay there, and others who were at makeshift shelters to remain in place indefinitely as they continue to treat ice-coated roads.

Maintenance workers are battling intransigent black ice to get stranded drivers on interstates and major state routes moving, said Karlene Barron, a spokeswoman for GDOT.

Tractor-trailers were advised not to enter Georgia at all.

“If there isn’t already a tractor-trailer in Georgia, please stay out,” Barron said. “We cannot deal with any more.”

Red-eyed district managers, communications staff and state maintenance officials worked round-the-clock at the Traffic Management Center, often without relief.

By early Wednesday, the stress was starting to show.

“It’s a horrible, horrible, horrible situation for people who are stuck out there,” said Barron, her eyes filling with tears. “I sit there and think about the mothers whose children are stuck in school buses… But people need to understand our folks are working as tedious as they can. This is a really hard situation for everybody.”

Overnight, help started to arrive from a few of other districts in the state that were less hard-hit, however, about two-thirds of the state has been impacted such that equipment and personnel were stretched thin.

A single dump truck can treat about 2.5 miles of one lane of pavement, according to Barron. Each time the trucks are stopping to reload (a process that takes 30 to 45 minutes not taking into account long traffic delays) they are returning to find that areas they just treated are refreezing.

The dump trucks are using a staggering method now. Two spreaders trucks are followed by a second set of trucks. After the first two run out of gravel and salt mixture and leave to reload, the other set picks up where they left off and continue spreading until they run out.

Asked whether they had learned any lessons yet from this ordeal, and whether they had warned motorists often and loudly enough Monday to stay off the roads, Barron said “we think so – Lord knows we’re not blaming anybody. People were at work. There are people who have to go to work or they lose jobs. Some people online were retweeting the fact that Natalie (GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale) was saying on a newscast Monday ‘don’t get on the roads.’ We were saying don’t do it, except if you have to.”

Initially, GDOT officials were expecting the storm to move in later in the day than it did. They planned to open the Traffic Management Center at noon Tuesday, but then overnight Monday they reevaluated based on weather forecasts and decided to open three hours earlier at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

The Downtown Connector has been treated multiple times and is passable. The issue now is large trucks and tractor-trailers on slight grades/hills can’t get going because they can’t get traction, according to GDOT’s chief engineer Russell McMurry. At the Downtown Connector at I-20 west, there are two trucks side by side that are stuck on the interstate. That is causing a backup on the Downtown Connector and on I-20 west on the east side of the city. GDOT is working to clear them.

Department of Natural Resources vehicles are going out in four-wheel-drive vehicles to deliver supplies like water and snacks to stranded motorists. DNR doesn’t know how many trucks are out right now, but the National Guard also has about 50 four-wheel-drive vehicles dispatched that are capable of driving off-road on banks of the interstates and roads to reach people stuck in cars, according to Crystal Paulk-Buchanan of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

The officers and guardsmen and women are prioritizing helping people with infants and very small children as well as elderly persons and those with medical issues. In some cases, those people are being driven or escorted by Georgia State Patrol to shelters or medical facilities.

Matthew Miller spent part of his Wednesday morning handing out food and drinks to motorists stranded on the Downtown Connector.

“Traffic was stopped all night so I just came out to give out some free food and hot drinks,” said Miller, who was dispensing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, various cereals and hot chocolate.

“I saw on Facebook that people had been out here for 18 hours and were complaining of being hungry and thirsty and just thought I would try to help out any way I could,” Miller said.

Emmett Johnson has seen a lot from his makeshift lean-to overlooking the Downtown Connector, but he’s never seen a night like this.

“When I went to sleep (around 11 p.m.) no one was moving,” said Johnson, camped out on a embankment off the Freedom Parkway northbound ramp.

By 6 a.m., the parking lot had broken up, only to relocate to other bottlenecks in either direction. Despite warnings not to drive unless absolutely necessary, a few cars could be seen heading onto the Connector and into a traffic jam for the ages.

Along the way they passed a half dozen cars abandoned on the ramp, including a new Mercedes 280 SLK, which parked just before entering the southbound ramp.

Just before sunrise, there were a few signs of progress. Around 5:45 a.m. a convoy of about 10 sand trucks, with police escorts, could be spotted heading south past Grady Memorial Hospital. A few minutes later, a school bus was being towed just south of Freedom Parkway.

Johnson said he had no regrets about riding out the snow-bacle. He was the only one, at least on this embankment popular with the homeless.

“I wouldn’t have come out here if I wasn’t prepared,” said Johnson, 60, who kept dry under an array of blue tarps. He was warm enough, he said, “layered up.” Johnson said he learned how to deal with the cold while in the military, though it didn’t come natural to him.

“I’m from Miami,” he said, a place that’s never seen temperatures as low as 12 degrees, Wednesday’s low.

Later in the morning Johnson said he planned to make the trek to the Salvation Army for breakfast, hoping the sun would melt enough ice to make the walk downtown manageable.

Meanwhile, on the neighboring Beltline, Georgia State University student Scott Laney got lucky. With sunrise still 45 minutes away, Laney, accompanied by friend Anderson Harrold, set out looking for his car keys, which he had lost Tuesday afternoon while sledding.

Laney was surprised to find the keys but said he wouldn’t be putting them to use anytime soon. The ride home to Cumming would have to wait.

Wednesday’s first road reports from the AM750 and 95.5FM News/Talk WSB Traffic Center were no better than Tuesday’s.

According to Cherokee County sheriff’s Lt. Jay Baker, road conditions just are “horrible all over the county.”

Baker said roads are completely impassable in the Lake Arrowhead area, and Ga. 140 is shut down near Stringer Road.

In Alpharetta, Old Milton Parkway and Main Street are closed due to the icy conditions.

Authorities were blocking the entrance ramps to Ga. 400 and shutting down U.S. 78 eastbound at Mountain Industrial Boulevard.

MARTA rail service is up and running and has been since 5:30 a.m., although they are still experiencing delays, according to MARTA spokesman Lyle Harris.

Harris said bus service will be running on Sunday schedules, once it is deemed safe to do so.

There were no estimates yet on when road conditions would improve, but GDOT officials were hopeful that Mother Nature might help a little.

Black ice will remain a big concern overnight, but a much-needed warm-up is on the way, according to Severe Weather Team 2 meteorologist Brad Nitz.

Temperatures are expected to reach 40 degrees Thursday. The area will spend about seven hours above freezing, Nitz said.

Friday should reach the low 50s.

The weekend forecast calls for highs in the low 60s Saturday and Sunday, with lows in the upper 30s to mid-40s, Nitz said. There is a 20 percent chance of rain Saturday, increasing to a 50 percent chance Sunday.

Staff writers Christian Boone and Michelle Shaw and photographer Ben Gray contributed to this article.

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