Maybe we’ll learn Tuesday if Metro Atlanta’s new and improved winter emergency response system actually works.
Its shiny fleet of salt brine trucks and weather-ready public officials went live Monday, but the brunt of the storm pushed to the north without delivering a true test of mettle.
That could change Tuesday morning as forecasts showed the possibility of freezing rain and black ice bearing down on Atlanta’s roadways and bridges in time for the morning commute. Just the chance of a wintry storm had Gov. Nathan Deal and other public officials on Monday again warning of potential hazards in hopes of avoiding the avalanche of criticism that followed last year’s disastrous snowjam response.
“We are fortunate we didn’t have a repeat of what we had last year,” Deal said at a press briefing Monday.
The National Weather Service forecast a black ice threat for Metro Atlanta on Tuesday morning with the northernmost suburbs facing a winter storm advisory and northeast Georgia facing a winter storm warning. Rain combined with high winds and temperatures hovering around freezing caused trees and powerlines to snap late Monday, leaving more than 100,000 north Georgia homes without power at some point.
In a winter that has hit other regions hard, this is the first storm to threaten Metro Atlanta and the first test of the season for Deal, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and other public officials. The governor and the mayor became the faces of failure in January 2014 when thousands of drivers were left stranded on local interstates when both men were caught unprepared for an ice storm that paralyzed the city.
This year, the pair are demonstrating that the searing lessons from from 2014 have sunk in. Both have been quick to respond and taken decisive action in the face of a transportation system that on its best days is fragile and on the edge of breakdown. Both state offices in Atlanta and north Georgia are delaying start times until 10 a.m. Tuesday. City of Atlanta offices along with the Municipal Court are also delaying their start times until 10 a.m. Tuesday. Fulton and Gwinnett county schools decided late Monday to close on Tuesday.
Anticipating a wintry blast, Reed made the call Sunday evening to close city government altogether on Monday. Atlanta opened up an emergency overflow shelter at the Old Adamsville Recreation Center.
City road crews began working 12-hour shifts Sunday to combat potential snow and ice, deploying seven brine trucks and 40 sand trucks to disperse roughly 3,000 tons of salt mixture on city roads and bridges. A city spokeswoman said the crews would continue applying the salty mix overnight Tuesday.
Monday’s Atlanta City Council meeting was rescheduled for Tuesday, barring further weather-related closures.
Deal, who encouraged state workers to stay home Monday, has also encouraged public school officials to consider delaying start times Tuesday.
Transportation crews dumped more than 400,000 gallons of brine on Atlanta highways over the weekend and on Monday, and are set to glisten the interstates with another coating early Tuesday. About 15 “strike teams” of first-responders will be at the ready Tuesday to clear roads and direct traffic at key intersections. Trucks were poised to dump thousands more gallons of gravel and salt on slippery roads.
“We are taking no chances,” Deal said, adding: “We took it serious last year. But we brought more of our forces to bear. We had a little better warning this time.”
For Deal, Monday’s weather epitomized the tough choices politicians and superintendents make when a storm front looms.
“It’s always difficult. Put yourself in the position of a school superintendent who has to make the call when the National Weather Service changes their prediction at 4 in the morning,” he said. “There’s a lot of moving parts.”
He added: “It’s a fine line, and some would say we erred on the side of caution. But I believe that is appropriate.”
In Union County it was cold, wet but snow-free Monday afternoon. The only sign of ice in this north Georgia county was the frozen trickles on roadside cliffs that sprayed into ice flows, such as those on the hairpin U.S 19. Outside it was 27 degrees.
But, following the governor’s lead, the Blairsville Waffle House had smothered salt on the sidewalk in the morning. But workers there wondered if it was necessary.
“They keep telling us it is going to snow or sleet an we’ve kept looking , saying, Where is it?” Said Dawn Smith, a waitress at the Waffle House. “I’ve lived up here nine years and I think I’ve seen snow twice that just didn’t blow across. For whatever reason, it doesn’t stay very long.”
But precaution seemed to be the sentiment expressed by local government officials across the region. Many schools were closed for Monday’s Presidents Day holiday, but those that weren’t took decisive action. Cobb and Floyd county schools called off classes because of the weather. Most school system’s seemed to be resuming classes on Tuesday, but some in north Georgia were delaying start times.
Local government officials on Monday were bracing for another night of unknowns.
“It’s still a little up in the air,” said Michael Singleton deputy EMA director for Fayette County. “But there’s the possibility of black ice. We’re staying in touch with the National Weather Service and GEMA and monitoring the situation. We’re prepared. We’ve got road crews on standby.”
The best lesson from last year’s storm was a simple one, said Jim Butterworth, who recently took over as head of the Georgia Emergency Management Administration.
“The key part we have learned is communicate, communicate, communicate,” he said. And they did so in a flurry of emails and meetings sent over the weekend to coordinate the response.
There were other lessons they have carried forth. Last year during the January snowstorm that paralyzed the city, GDOT road crews were only able to place brine — a salty liquid solution — on Spaghetti Junction and interstate overpasses in metro Atlanta. This year, GDOT has a new brine-making machine. The agency also now has a large brine storage facility and 10 brine tankers, thanks to investments that were made after Snowjam ‘14.
So workers were able to brine I-285 and interstates inside the Perimeter, plus some of the interstates extending into the suburbs. GDOT workers were out all day Sunday laying down the saltwater solution so that it saturated roads 24 hours in advance of the expected wintry precipitation.
With all this preparation and no snow Monday, Deal could only chuckle when a reporter noted he seemed a little frustrated by the less-than-overwhelming weather.
“You never get mad at Mother Nature,” he said.
Staff Writers Tammy Joyner, Katie Leslie, Steve Visser and Andria Simmons contributed to this report.
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