ATLANTA – Is Atlanta ready this time?
Two weeks after 2.5 inches of snow immobilized this major city and vital transportation hub, state and local authorities and utilities are making massive preparations for a potentially more devastating, double-barreled storm expected this week.
The storm that shut the city down Jan. 28 was primarily a traffic event: Thousands of schoolchildren spent the night at school, hundreds on buses. Motorists spent the night in gridlocked cars, or they simply left them beside the highway. Many people stayed overnight at work. Before the roadways were cleared, local and state politicians came under intense scrutiny for how they responded.
The storm forecast to hit Monday night into Tuesday, and again Tuesday into Wednesday and Thursday may be more than a traffic event because it is expected to bring ice accumulations – toppling power lines and spurring widespread outages. And the politicians are gearing up now.
"Ice is the big danger here," said Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. "We are making every effort to be prepared for this event."
Deal issued a state of emergency declaration Monday for 14 of the state's 159 counties under winter storm warnings, and later expanded it to 31 other counties with storm watches.
"When you're talking about the amount of ice we're looking at, it's catastrophic," said Aaron Strickland, head of the Georgia Power Storm Center. "It's an event we are extremely fearful of." He urged residents to "make personal preparations," and said Georgia Power has begun bringing in crews from Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Michigan to help restore power as quickly as possible.
The Atlanta area could see up to an inch of snow by Tuesday, possibly with some freezing rain mixed in, said meteorologist Alex Gibbs of the National Weather Service in Peachtree City; north Georgia could get 1 to 3 inches.
Then it could get really bad.
"The major thing we're really concerned about is going to be the second wave on Tuesday night into Wednesday and into Thursday, where we could see some pretty significant icing" caused by freezing rain and low temperatures, Gibbs said. Atlanta could get ¼ inch of ice and areas east of Atlanta toward the South Carolina border up to ½ inch.
The state Department of Transportation has restocked salt brine and sand supplies and positioned them where they're most likely to be needed, Deal said. He had also implemented a "liberal leave" policy for state employees for Tuesday, meaning they could leave work without penalty.
The DOT was moving dozens of road crews from districts in south Georgia to metro Atlanta, said Commissioner Keith Golden.
Adjutant General Jim Butterworth, head of the Georgia National Guard said that 1,400 four-wheel-drive vehicles were at the ready to help deal with the storm.
The Georgia State Patrol was poised to prevent pass-through truckers from traveling inside the Perimeter Highway, Interstate 285. The State Patrol was also ready to divert truck traffic from area interstates onto U.S. highways and to impose a requirement that big-rigs have tire chains.
In Atlanta, Mayor Kasim Reed said the city has nearly doubled its storm-fighting capacity, contracting for 35 additional spreaders for a total of 60 and for 20 more plows for a total of 40. He said the city was coordinating with 10 neighboring counties on storm planning "to keep each other informed," and had stockpiled 1,500 tons of sand and de-icing materials. "So we feel that with that stockpile we're in a relatively good position."
Most of the city's 8,000 employees were also under a liberal leave policy, and Reed said he would make a recommendation between 7 and 9 a.m. Tuesday to Atlanta public school officials on whether they should cancel classes.
Atlanta area residents are anticipating a worse storm, as evidenced by the runs on grocery stores. A Kroger in Smyrna was so jammed there were no parking spaces in the huge lot Monday afternoon, and the lines inside were daunting.
"I think there's definitely over-reaction," said Ken White, 48, an aircraft mechanic for Delta Air Lines whose 35-minute commute from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport Jan. 28 took 11 1/2 hours. "Well, I say over-reaction, but time will tell. They're definitely being a lot more cautious. People are going to be prepared this time."
"I do think (city and state authorities) are better prepared this time," said Vincent Smith, 56, a Xerox account executive whose 35-minute commute took 5 1/2 hours on Jan. 28. "They're just putting a lot more preparation into it this time."
Reed declined to predict that the city and region will perform better this time around. "We're just going to get out here and flat-out let our work speak for itself," he said.
Authorities are all-too aware that their preparations might appear panicky. Last week, the Department of Transportation briefly warned motorists with its roadside information signs that a winter storm watch or warning had been issued — even though neither had been.
"Over-reaction has an economic impact," Deal said. "Under-reaction has an economic impact. "That's why we're going to try our best to get it right every time."