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Ice storm settles in over Georgia

POSTED: February 12, 2014 7:02 p.m.
Kevin Atwill/

Forsyth County Sheriff's patrol cars were among the few vehicles traveling Hwy. 20 at Market Place Boulevard, normally one of the most congested intersections in Forsyth County, on Wednesday morning.

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UPDATE (7 p.m. Wednesday) —With the exception of two minor traffic accidents involving vehicles that slid off roads, authorities say Wednesday afternoon into early evening was pretty uneventful on Forsyth County roads.

 

There was, however, one incident where a tree fell across Hwy. 369 near Ga. 400, according to Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Doug Rainwater.

 

"It knocked out the power for that area,” he said. “Georgia Power just finished restoring the power, which was out several hours. They chopped up the tree and restored power, so everything is back to normal on the Hwy. 369/ Ga. 400 corridor."

 

Rainwater added that there were also two domestic disturbance phone calls, which he said could happen after a day or two of being cooped up at home.

 

With the sleet-snow mix that's been falling since 3 p.m., Rainwater advised that roads are unsafe to drive on, even if they’re being treated.

 

"I've been seeing the Georgia DOT and the county [roads and bridges] department just up and down the major thoroughfares," he said. "But all afternoon we've been pummeled with sleet and they're still at it."

 

*****

 

UPDATE (1 p.m. Wednesday) — With the threat of a “dire” storm looming, state Department of Transportation dump trucks mounted with snow plows and spreaders continue to treat northeast Georgia’s state routes and interstates.

 

Wind-whipped snow started falling about 4 a.m. and accumulated quickly across Forsyth County.

 

DOT crews are plowing snow and spreading salt and gravel on state routes and interstates throughout the region.

 

However, heavy snow in Forsyth, Hall and other counties re-covers a road minutes after the snow is plowed off, according to authorities.

 

“Our crews are working diligently in every county focusing on interstates and four-lane state routes,” said Bayne Smith, a DOT district engineer. “This allows us to keep major roads open that benefit the most emergency traffic.

 

“We just can’t work every route when conditions are this perilous. Our priorities have to be primary routes, the interstates and four- or five-lane state routes. Please do not multiply the hazards by driving unless it is an emergency situation.”

 

Road conditions are described as treacherous, and travel is discouraged. Additional traffic will compound the perilous conditions, authorities say.

 

Doug Rainwater, spokesman for the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, said all roads are basically unsafe to drive on without chains on tires, however none are being closed unless a tree or power line is blocking it.

 

While the county's sheriff's office has been fully staffed with personnel, they haven't been busy. Few businesses are open due to the weather.

 

"There have been very few calls for service for us," Rainwater said. "We handled only two accidents so far and last night was like a ghost town for our deputies. But we would rather have more personnel than we need than not enough."

 

Forsyth's roads and bridges department has a list of priorities for treating roads in the community, so for those roads that haven't been treated, they will be, Rainwater said.

 

"At the 911 Center on Setting Down [Road], I just saw a sand truck and plow pass by," Rainwater said. "They're working 24-7 and they will until everything's over."

 

He added that Ga. 400 “is holding its own, even though there's a layer of ice with snow on top of it.”

 

Deputies, fire personnel and department heads will be continuously briefed by the National Weather service over the next 24 hours. Response plans could shift based on any changes in weather.

 

After the most recent update, Rainwater said officials expect another 3 to 4 inches of snow tonight, mixed in with sleet.

 

"They're hoping the system will be out of here by 10 [p.m.] and everything they've said so far has been right on track — everything. So I would suspect [Thursday] we can probably see some melting around lunch time."

 

But that's not going to be the end of unsafe road conditions, according to Rainwater. While fresh rain, snow and sleet won't be falling, temperatures are expected to dip below freezing again Thursday night, likely solidifying any remaining snow and ice.

 

"It's going to depend on just how hard everything freezes [Wednesday night]," Rainwater said. "Thursday evening, when it goes back down to below 32 degrees, it will refreeze.

 

"In terms of the sheriff's office, we're going to maintain the same status quo we're doing today. We're keeping the same shifts and policies in place."

 

Rainwater said the county has been pretty quiet as far as emergency calls, however there were two trees that fell and blocked roads Wednesday morning.

 

The first was on Hyde Road near Drew Campground and the other was on Mountain View Road in the city of Cumming. Both streets were closed for about 45 minutes while the trees were removed and have since reopened.

 

"We called in [crews with the county] roads and bridges [department] and they were chopping up these trees, moving them to the side and reopening the roadways," Rainwater said. "We don't have any closures right now."

 

According to the DOT, the following are areas of Forsyth that have been deemed hazardous and where icing has been reported and crews are working:

 

* Hwys. 53 and 306

 

* Hwy. 20 from Ga. 400 across the Chattahoochee River to Gwinnett County    

 

* Hwy. 369 at Ga. 400

 

* Hwy. 141 at Ronald Reagan Pkwy.

 

* Hwy. 369 bridges across Lake Lanier

 

According to authorities, the latest weather predictions call for a “dire ice storm” that could include extreme black ice and more than 7 inches of snow in Forsyth.

There’s also the possibility of 20- to 30-mph winds, which increase the threat for widespread downed trees, branches and power lines.

The transportation department is coordinating with all state agencies at the emergency operations center, which will remain active throughout this winter storm event. 

 

All motorists are urged to stay off of the roads as the threat of icy conditions continues to increase throughout the day.

 

According to the DOT, ice can be deceptively dangerous, difficult to anticipate and difficult to drive on. Bridges and overpasses will ice first.

 

The National Weather Service’s ice storm and winter weather warnings remain in effect for the upper half of Georgia. A state of emergency remains in effect for 91 counties.

 

Forecasters are predicting hazardous conditions, which can cause power outages and substantial structural damage due to falling trees and ice.

 

The DOT’s focus is on keeping highways passable for emergency purposes. Officials say the overall goal is to keep all roads passable, but the extent of that challenge is unknown as weather conditions are expected to deteriorate.

 

Those who must travel for emergency purposes are advised to slow down, avoid DOT trucks and closely follow travel information as the weather system brings changing conditions.

 

If the power goes out, the Georgia Emergency Management Agency advises residents to use flashlights for emergency lighting.

 

Kerosene heaters should be used only in well-ventilated areas, authorities say, and objects or dry clothes should not be stored on heaters.

 

Check back for updates at forsythnews.com.

 

******

 

UPDATE (10:30 p.m. Tuesday) —Following a briefing Tuesday night, Forsyth County Sheriff's Office spokesman Doug Rainwater said the weather forecast has changed somewhat from the last update authorities received.

 

"It looks like a lot more snow than ice,” Rainwater said. “It looks like we're going to get probably about 7 or 8 inches of snow, which was different than what they had forecast, but less ice.

 

“It's a good thing, but we're still equipping as many patrol cars as we can with chains tonight and as the day goes forward.”

 

Despite less ice, Rainwater said motorists should plan to spend Wednesday at home, unless there's an absolute emergency. The snow likely will be deceiving.

 

"Mixed in the snow will be ice, so it may look like [several] inches of snow, but because of the mixture of sleet and snow that will be falling after 3 a.m., it will be ice,” he said. “The surface may look like snow and feel like snow, but the ice will be under that snow. It's still unsafe to be driving."

 

In addition to the snow, sleet and ice, Rainwater said heavy winds of up to 30 mph are expected to kick in before 10 a.m., potentially blowing over trees weighed down by ice. The roads are expected to be unsafe and the fewer cars blocking the path for emergency personnel and transportation trucks, the smoother it will be to clear and treat those roads.

 

"The National Weather Service is saying that everything that falls from about 3 a.m. forward will stay for the next 36 hours,” Rainwater said. “So the time in which you can maybe start seeing thawing is maybe Thursday at lunch.

 

"That's why [the sheriff’s office is] preparing for double shifts to make sure that we do have everything covered and that we do have plenty of personnel in place."

 

The county's emergency operations center has been up and running since 10 a.m. Tuesday and it likely will be in place through at least Thursday.

 

Rainwater said the center is equipped with representatives from the county's fire department, sheriff's office, roads and bridges division and other key Forsyth government departments "so we can all coordinate together and meet the needs that might come up."

 

Rainwater said the next briefing will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

 

Check back for updates at forsythnews.com.

 

*****

 

CUMMING — Morning snow showers gave way to rain and flint gray skies Tuesday afternoon in Forsyth County as residents braced for plunging temperatures overnight and a coating of ice.

 

Authorities were monitoring the situation closely as the weather forecasters issued an unusually dire winter warning. The storm could be a "catastrophic event" reaching "historical proportions," according to the National Weather Service.

 

The ice threat is expected to begin in Georgia overnight. As much as 9 inches of snow could fall in parts of north Georgia by Wednesday night.

 

As of Tuesday night, Doug Rainwater with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office said that deputies were beginning to see ice — “not much, but some” — starting to form on concrete.

 

“If it continues like this, naturally it will be pretty tough,” Rainwater said. “The snow should be tapering off a little bit … but we started our emergency operations center this morning, where the different departments in Forsyth County come together and we sit in this big room and coordinate all the different services.”

 

In addition to the sheriff’s office, those departments include fire, emergency management services and roads and bridges.

 

“We will stay the duration until everything's over, probably Thursday afternoon,” Rainwater said.

 

“We will take whatever comes our way and right now we have plenty of resources (salt and other road supplies) for that. We'll help the motorists the best we can. Naturally, the best thing to do is not drive unless you have to.”

 

Teri Pope, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, said nothing major has been reported so far in Forsyth, which doesn't "have many higher elevations, thankfully." She did note, however, that the weather is constantly changing.

 

"We're starting to get reports of bridges icing, but no Lake Lanier bridges yet,” she said. “Bridges will be a major concern” Tuesday night and into Wednesday.

 

According to Pope, the department has 2,100 miles of state routes and interstates, as well as 750 bridges, in northeast Georgia.

 

"So for every three miles you drive, you drive across a bridge," she said. "Most people don't think about how many bridges they cross. We are trying to get people to stop and think about their route, the bridges on the route and the conditions at their destination too.”

 

Logan Thomas, a spokesman for Forsyth County’s government, said staff members have had several weather briefings.

 

“We're on it, we're ready and everyone is prepared to ride it out,” he said. “As of right now, it's just wet roads. We're monitoring as the weather system develops for ice.”

 

County Road Superintendent Patrick L. Tittle said the department "has prepared all of its necessary equipment for salting and scraping roads throughout the county.”

 

“We are currently monitoring the weather to determine the appropriate time to dispatch crews,” he said.

 

Tittle added that inclement weather procedures, including the primary and secondary road salt orders, can be found on the county’s website, under the roads and bridges department dropdown menu.

 

Avery Gravitt, director of fleet services for the county, said employees will be working 12-hour shifts.

 

“They will handle main service items for inclement weather like snow chains being installed as required, wiper blade replacements … repairing any lighting issues such as headlights and patrol lights and repairs to any of the snow-grading and salt-spreading equipment and tire replacement,” he said. “They're going to be on call for the duration, beginning tonight.”

 

Rainwater said the sheriff’s office is taking a similar approach and trying to be prepared for "everything and anything."

 

"We are now going to add to our personnel because of the possibility of widespread icing," he said. "We are doubling our shifts for the next two days.

 

“We've got the personnel that we need and I know for a fact that the fire department has what they need. It's just a matter of time.”

 

Pope said roads will be easier for transportation department crews to treat if there are fewer vehicles, something Gov. Nathan Deal emphasized during a press conference Monday, when he declared a state of emergency in Georgia.

 

"People need to be weather-aware over the next several days,” Pope said. “Conditions will get worse … check the forecast and go sooner rather than later if they must get out. But the DOT will never recommend folks travel during a winter weather event.

 

"If possible, please stay where you are and enjoy playing in the snow in your yard, while [DOT crews] work on the roads."

 

Rainwater echoed that sentiment.

 

“For right now, the roads are drivable,” he said. “They're starting to show signs of snow accumulation, but the snow isn't freezing on the asphalt, so there's still time to go out and do stuff you need to do, but I'd stay close to home. Because as we know, this weather system that's here now, it can change within an hour.”

 

He also issued a word of caution to those who venture out later, when conditions may be worse.

 

“If you leave your vehicle abandoned on a roadway obstructing traffic and causing harm to other cars, we will tow your car,” he said.

 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 

Check back for updates at forsythnews.com.

 

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