With snow on the way, Deal sends state workers home early

Mayor says he wants people off roads by 4 p.m.
January 28, 2014 Atlanta: Traffic inches along the Connector as snow blankets the Metro on Tuesday afternoon January 28, 2014 as seen from the Pryor Street overpass. BEN GRAY / BGRAY@AJC.COM

January 28, 2014 Atlanta: Traffic inches along the Connector as snow blankets the Metro on Tuesday afternoon January 28, 2014 as seen from the Pryor Street overpass. BEN GRAY / BGRAY@AJC.COM

With metro Atlanta bracing for up to four inches of snow, Gov. Nathan Deal on Friday ordered nonessential state employees to leave work by noon.

Even a hint of snow — it’s set to begin falling as early as Friday afternoon — will bring interstates to a standstill and leave milk and bread aisles empty in supermarkets. But forecasters warned this won’t just be a few flakes.

» The AJC's full coverage of storm preparations

Metro Atlanta's major school districts — Atlanta, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett, Marietta, Decatur — will close at least two hours early today.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed today asked that everyone be off the roads by 4 p.m. Reed’s suggestion was that schoolchildren go home by 11:30 a.m.; private employers let their workers go by 12:30; and city employees head home by 1:30.

Not so fast, Atlanta Public Schools said. They’d already planned a staggered release beginning at 12:30 and had no plans to change it.

Gov. Deal also said this morning that pretreatment of roads had begun.

“We believe we are prepared,” the governor said. “We are hopeful the storm will be a light one that will not persist very long. And we hope the weather will warm up by Sunday and that most of the ice will have melted.”

Deal earlier declared a state of emergency, effective noon today, for 79 counties, including all of metro Atlanta. But the governor urged residents not to rush to the roads as soon as the emergency order takes effect.

The bread aisle at a Kroger store in Peachtree City late Thursday shows the same pre-storm decimation that was common across the metro area.

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State leaders warned metro Atlanta residents should plan to stay home for three days, and transportation crews began treating roads for potential frozen precipitation on Thursday. By Friday morning, forecasters said, it will certainly feel as though snow is in the air. Morning temperatures will be in low to mid-30s in Atlanta and colder in north Georgia, where snow could fall during the day Friday, according Monahan.

By late Friday afternoon, snow will begin blanketing the Atlanta area, and could be mixed with freezing rain and sleet. It could start as early as 4 p.m. A winter storm warning is in effect for Atlanta and north Georgia.

“Whatever melts a bit on Saturday afternoon, it’s going to freeze right back up,” meteorologist Brian Monahan with Channel 2 Action News said Thursday. “Roads will be an issue, really through the whole weekend.”

Not another Snowpocalypse

For many, the looming winter weather was a reminder of nightmare from three years ago, dubbed Snowpocalypse in Georgia and mocked elsewhere. In January 2014, snowfall started on an otherwise normal weekday, sending thousands to their cars to head home. Many didn't arrive until the next day.

» How Georgia turned 2014 storm into a disaster

The weather warnings came too late, some argued. And when all of metro Atlanta hit the interstates at the same time, it create an epic traffic jam. Motorists were stranded for hours until running out of gas. Some of the luckier ones that made it home opened their homes to the stranded.

This time, north Georgia will be ready when the first flake falls, government leaders said Thursday.

The Georgia Department of Transportation is deploying a fleet of snowplows, tens of thousands of gallons of brine and hundreds of employees as it prepares for the first storm of winter. The agency began applying 100,000 gallons of brine to metro Atlanta highways Thursday night and continued until all interstates and state highways are covered.

GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale said Thursday the state has learned some lessons since previous storms, including the brine program.

In 2014, “we didn’t have a brine program, period,” she said. Now GDOT can store 450,000 gallons of brine and can produce 20,000 gallons an hour.

The brine lowers the temperature at which snow and ice stick to pavement, which delays any accumulation.

Metro counties, including Gwinnett, Cobb and DeKalb, said they’re also prepared to deal with winter weather.

Cobb County spent a million dollars on new snow removal equipment last year, and it could be put to the test this week. Bill Shelton, the road maintenance division manager for Cobb's Transportation Department, said Thursday that his team has already started pre-treating bridges with brine to prevent ice from forming.

Gwinnett officials said Thursday that the county has about 1,000 gallons of brine — the salt and sand mixture used to pre-treat roads ahead of winter weather — already mixed. The brine is stockpiled at five locations throughout the county: Lawrenceville, Grayson, Buford, Duluth and Lilburn. In DeKalb, more than 1,000 tons of salt and 1,800 tons of sand are available to make the mixture that helps remove ice from slippery streets. Sixteen sand-spreading vehicles are available.

Hitting the stores

Fran Mahan pushed his 3-year-old daughter on a shopping cart Thursday through a Home Depot in Sandy Springs looking for a snow shovel. There were plenty of shovels that can be used to remove snow, but no actual snow shovels.

Still, Mahan wasn’t intimidated by the forecast.

“I’m from Pennsylvania,” he said. “Two to four inches of snow is nothing.”

His quest turned into a no-shovel.

“Up north, they have them all over the place,” said Mahan, who teaches in Fulton County schools. “They put them right out in front and you just pick one up.”

Mahan said he wasn’t too worried about the weather. Then he confessed to having bought a gallon of milk, just in case.

Next door, at Costco, a woman with two children in tow bought one of the precious “snow tubes” still available. Every checkout line in the store was humming as hordes of shoppers harvested bread and produce. This being Costco, there was still plenty of both, but the shelves weren’t bursting as usual.

The weather will likely force the area's homeless shelter to reach capacity over the next few days as freezing temperatures move in. But shelters are prepared to offer a break from the bitter cold.

MUST Ministries has a cold weather shelter for people to stay warm in frigid temperatures.

The cold weather shelter, which in on MUST’s Marietta campus at 55 Elizabeth Church Rd., has 22 beds and is for women and families. Single men stay at The Extension facility nearby. The cold weather shelter, which is open when temperatures dip to 32 degree and below, provides dinner, a place to sleep overnight and breakfast the next morning.

Rachel Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta Mission, it will be business as usual at the Shepherd’s Inn and My Sister’s House, which is always at capacity. As more people come, we will open up more space,” she said. “We will be accepting walk-ups.”

The Atlanta Mission has two main campuses in Atlanta that offer overnight accommodations. The Shepherd’s Inn, 165 Ivan Allen Blvd., holds 450 men; and My Sister’s House, 921 Howell Mill Rd. provides shelter for 275 women and children.

Airport prepares to weather the storm

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is preparing for the weather expected this weekend.

“We have plans in place to address inclement weather and we are monitoring approaching weather systems closely,” according to Hartsfield-Jackson spokesman Reese McCranie.

Both Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines are warning that flights to Atlanta and other cities in the Southeast may be impacted by the weather.

Atlanta-based Delta is waiving certain change fees for those with flights booked Jan. 6-7 to, from or through Atlanta, Asheville; Birmingham; Charlotte; Chattanooga; Columbia; Fayetteville; Greensboro; Greenville/Spartanburg; Huntsville; Jacksonville; Knoxville; Nashville; New Bern, N.C.; Newport News; Norfolk; Raleigh-Durham; Tri-Cities, Tenn.; and Wilmington, N.C. Those whose flights are cancelled or significantly delayed are entitled to a refund.

MARTA also said it was monitoring the weather and as they consider whether to implement emergency plans for the rail and bus system.

— Staff writers Greg Bluestein, Richard Halicks, Meris Lutz, Tyler Estep, Mark Niesse, Sheila Poole, Leon Stafford and Kelly Yamanouchi contributed to this report.