Planning, geography helped Southside counties through storm


Soutside storm crashes

(Tuesday-Thursday)

Total accidents /Accidents with injuries/ Fatalities

Clayton 243/ 87/ 0

Fayette Not available /13 /0

Henry 145/ 28 /1

Atlanta and surrounding counties at a glance:

(in square miles and population)

Square mile / Population*

Atlanta 132.4 /443,775

Clayton 144/ 265,888

Cobb 345/ 707,442

Fayette 199/ 107, 524

Fulton 535/ 977,773

Henry 324 / 209,053

*2012 census

At 4:15 Tuesday morning, Jonesboro mom Renita Shepherd got a call from Clayton County Public Schools saying there’d be no school for her two children. The call came seven hours before the snowstorm hit, paralyzing much of metro Atlanta.

By 9 a.m., Fayette County fire, police, road and school officials were huddled together going over their snow plans.

Over in Henry County, Commission Chairman Tommy Smith had already sent a text Sunday at 5 p.m. to county emergency coordinator Don Ash: "Don, weather could be a factor if the (National Weather Service) is right." To which Ash promptly replied: "I'm sitting in church and working on (snow plans) as we speak." By Monday at 1 p.m. — 24 hours before the storm hit — county officials, emergency and school staffers and other key people were in a pow-wow with the National Weather Service. Work shifts quickly became 12 hours instead of the usual eight.

Those small but crucial steps helped the three southside counties police a total of 667 square miles while averting the chaos that gripped their neighbors to the north. By late Thursday, operations in the three counties were pretty much back to normal as Atlanta continued digging out.

“What was critical for us was mobilizing and coordinating emergency services with all the other key components in the county: law enforcement, EMS, fire, public works, sheriff and county manager. We were all in constant contact with each other,” said Ash, Henry’s director of Emergency Management and 911.

While the rest of America is snickering at Atlanta’s gridlock over two inches of snow, the southside watched from the sidelines.

Southsiders had their share of icy roads, car accidents and wait times for emergency crews but there were no stranded students or abandoned cars. (Fayette schools were in session Tuesday but released students by early afternoon. All kids in the 20,548-student school district were home by 7 p.m. that night, school spokeswoman Melinda Berry-Dreisbach said).

With kids safely at home, fire, rescue and emergency crews in the three counties could focus on salting and sanding roads, dispatch emergency crews and keep gridlock at bay.

“When you take the kids out of the picture, it’s so much better,” said Jacque Feilke, deputy chief of Clayton Fire and emergency services. “It’s definitely more controlled when you don’t have to worry about getting the kids home.”

Clayton Fire and rescue personnel who owned four-wheel vehicles picked up co-workers the night before the storm to ensure emergency services personnel were at work.

Mind you, there’s no gloating come from the southside. Planning aside, geography and infrastructure has just as much to do with the southside being spared the storm’s messy aftermath.

“We’re a landlocked county. We don’t have the interstates running through. That was a big concern for the northside,” said Lt. Donnie Davis with Fayette’s fire and emergency services, which also logged 12-hour days. “There’s no slight to the northside. They just have more of the interstates. If those were shifted down this way we could have been in the same situation.”

Initial forecasts had the storm centered over the southside, sending southside emergency management officials into high alert. Emergency operation centers were activated late Monday or early Tuesday. Brainstorming among the schools, public works, hospitals, fire, sheriff and police and rescue crews was constant.

“We have a strong relationship with our county emergency agencies and discussions were held in advance of the storm and all forecasts showed Henry county receiving severe winter weather,” said J.D. Hardin, spokesman for the 41,000-student Henry school district.

When ambulances dispatched from Southern Regional Medical Center got stuck, road crews were there to quickly dig them out. As soon as the severity of the storm was fully realized, the decision was made to take all emergencies to Southern Regional.

“There were lots of bumps and bruises. People were being transported to Southern Regional because it was too tough to get to neighboring hospitals,” Feilke said.

Through it all, the counties still found time for the small touches: Clayton firefighters scrounged up food for a family with a three-year-old stranded on I-285. A Fayette resident stranded near Clayton got a lift home from Clayton emergency services folks. And the phone call in the wee hour of the morning to parents like Shepherd, who spent the time off making sure her children, Nicholas, 5, and four-year-old Cayleigh, kept ahead of their school work.

“I didn’t have to worry about getting stuck in traffic trying to get my children,” said Shepherd who substitute teaches on the northside. “They (school and county officials) made the best decision.”

While at home, she watched the gridlock that unfolded in Atlanta and was troubled by the scenes of kids stranded on buses and in schools.

“That’s just ridiculous. It’s always better to be safe than sorry,” she said. “We’re suffering more now. There’s more repercussions by not closing the schools. All the traffic wouldn’t have been as bad. And overtime? The taxpayers are going to have to pay for that.”