Metro Atlanta prepares for wintry deluge

If the ice and snow take us down this time, it won’t be without a fight.

As metro Atlanta braces for an expected wintry deluge expected to begin tonight, transportation departments across the state are on high alert to avoid the level of mess metro Atlanta saw a month ago, when about 1,000 crashes happened in one icy evening commute.

While not one flake or pellet fell Saturday, highway crews, airlines and power companies began preparations for snow and ice that will continue today. Heavy snow is expected to begin falling in the Atlanta area tonight, possibly reaching three to five inches, and followed by freezing rain.

“Driving conditions will be very hazardous Sunday night into Monday and even into Tuesday morning,” as melted snow and ice re-freeze Tuesday, Kent Frantz, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said on Saturday. “People really need to slow down ... 20 miles per hour or less. Honestly, the key is speed, it really is.”

Road departments, police and sheriffs from the state, counties and towns are moving equipment into place, bringing additional trucks and workers from the coastal areas and preparing to staff emergency operations centers in the metro area starting Sunday night.

Airlines are canceling flights, and encouraging passengers to re-book. Delta and AirTran are both waiving penalties for passengers who change Sunday and Monday flights to times when the storm is not expected.

Governor-elect Nathan Deal said he will decide by 1 p.m. whether to move his planned outdoor inauguration Monday inside the capitol, to the House chamber.

The Carroll County school system decided to cancel Monday’s classes. Georgia Power has put its employees on notice to expect long hours if ice brings down power lines.

Out of caution, the state DOT pre-treated a few bridges and overpasses, including Spaghetti Junction, with Ice Ban liquid de-icer on Saturday, and likely will again today if the weather is dry, said DOT spokesman David Spear. Mostly, they are getting personnel and equipment into place to be ready when the weather starts.

Cobb County officials say there is little treatment they can put on the roads before the precipitation starts, since it would get washed away before it can do any good, according to county spokesman Robert Quigley.

While officials braced, residents bunkered in. The flashlights, batteries, sleds and wine are flying off store shelves.

“It’s insane,” said Jennifer Howell, a cashier at Ace Hardware in Sandy Springs, barely able to answer the phone as she rang up customers.

A month ago, when a storm arrived hours earlier than expected during a rush hour commute, roads iced over so quickly that road crews had no chance to respond. Police closed bridges and in some places stopped responding to minor crashes.

“I think we’re going to be extra sensitive to this one, obviously in part because of what happened last time, but also because this is a much more prolonged event and we don’t want to let it get ahead of us,” said Spear.

For all their efforts, they still won’t be able to plow or salt every road, not by a long shot: The state contains about 100,000 miles of streets and roads. The plan is to concentrate on major thoroughfares first. While the temperatures may not be as bitterly cold as in the December storm, Spear said, “By the same token, this is going to be a much more widespread event. We have limited resources, local governments have limited resources, and neighborhood streets by and large are at the bottom of the pecking order.”

The city of Atlanta’s plan -- “improved and more robust” this time around -- has as its first priority 200 miles of roadways including 40 bridges, six hospitals and 16 precincts. The city may use eight sand trucks plus other escort vehicles, and has 500 tons of sand mixture, as well as other resources.

On Sunday, about 80 extra DOT employees from far south Georgia will be making their way to the Atlanta area, to be at their posts by 6 p.m., although DOT does not expect snow to start until 9 p.m., Spear said. More than 40 DOT snow and ice trucks should finish arriving Sunday morning, adding to more than 150 trucks already in the metro area. They include trucks with snow plows and spreaders to deposit a mixture of pebbles and salt, and escort trucks to accompany them with flashing lights and crash barriers.

At the state DOT and local agencies, emergency management centers are being set up. In Cherokee County, representatives of the fire, police, road and other departments will gather at a center connected to the county’s 911 operations, and several may spend the night, “just really according to what happens and how bad it is,” said sheriff’s department spokesman Lt. Jay Baker.

DeKalb County crews will come in at 6 p.m. too, said Burke Brennan, county spokesman, and the county has affixed plow attachments to two trucks . Four of its eight trucks that spread sand and salt will also have equipment needed to cut trees. Once the storm starts, the crews will start working 12-hour shifts, on a 24-hour cycle, until the roads are OK, Brennan said.

Gwinnett has about 25 trucks, and Cobb County has about 12, according to county officials.

At the airport, Delta expects to end up canceling several hundred flights, and is not allowing unaccompanied minors or pets on flights that connect through Atlanta, though they can fly if the flight starts or ends here, since the idea is to reduce the risk of getting them stranded. For any air traveler, said Delta spokesman Anthony Black, given the snow and ice, “They’ve got to look at, is it even worth it to attempt to get to the airport?”

Staff writer Craig Schneider contributed to this article.