Local News

February 6, 2014

An imperfect storm

Local officials detail efforts after ice, snow snarled area

As Whitfield County residents heard the word “snow” in the forecast again possibly for Saturday, they could at least rest a little easier knowing that a team of local officials is keeping a close eye on the weather.

Whitfield County Emergency Management Agency Director Claude Craig says his philosophy when it comes to preparing for the possibility of storms has always been “better safe than sorry.”

That’s why all this week he and National Weather Service forecasters were keeping a watch on a rapidly developing system that was showing potential for creating hazardous driving conditions here again.

As the county observes Severe Weather Awareness Week this week, Craig knows that a little planning ahead can go a long way toward lessening the effects of bad weather.

“We cannot get complacent with our preparatory actions anytime that we feel like an event of this magnitude might occur,” he said, referring to the Jan. 28 snowfall that led to major traffic snarls and dozens of accidents across Whitfield County as thousands of workers and students tried to get home at the same time.

While some residents may have been surprised by last week’s storm, Craig was not.

For days, he and other officials had been monitoring the weather, and as it became more certain that the snow would strike here, Craig even activated the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at 5 a.m. Tuesday.

During times of emergencies, the EOC brings together, in a single room at the 911 Center, representatives from public safety agencies such as police, fire and EMS, along with leaders from the school systems and public works, allowing them to communicate instantly with each other and make more effective decisions on their responses.

“Yes, it may prove to be unnecessary for us to go into a partial activation in our Emergency Operations Center,” Craig said, “but my feelings are that it’s easier to downgrade if nothing happens than it is to try to ramp up during total chaos. So therefore err on the side of caution — be prepared, prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.”

Adhering to that philosophy, Craig had kept tabs on the weather system for days prior to its eventual arrival here on middle of the day on Jan. 28.

“It appeared at first that they were predicting everything was going to go south of us, that we might see a little flurry here and there but nothing more than a dusting,” he said. “But as time went on, that seemed to be changing.”

On Monday morning, Jan. 27, Craig sent out an email to his weather group that includes emergency support officials such as fire, law enforcement, public works, and Hamilton EMS, as well as city and county school officials, warning that the potential existed for a snow event here.

“I started Monday morning at 8 o’clock sending notifications that I thought we were going to be getting a little more than what had been earlier predicted,” he said. “Then at 1 p.m. on Monday, we had a weather briefing from the National Weather Service that we simulcast at the EOC. At that point, the forecast was still pretty much for just a dusting here.”

That changed during the night, however.

“Tuesday morning at 3:38, the National Weather Service notified me that they had moved North Metro Atlanta into the winter storm warning and they put us under an advisory that we could be in the area to receive snow,” he said.

At 5:36 a.m., Craig notified the school systems and public works that Whitfield County might be hit with an inch to two inches of snow that day.

Thirty minutes later, he sent out an email to the weather group, notifying them that it appeared the winter storm would be moving farther north than originally thought, and he set up another meeting with the group at 9 a.m.

“Before the weather briefing even began with the National Weather Service, we kind of had our own briefing amongst ourselves and said this is what we think it’s going to do,” Craig said, “and once we got through with the Weather Service telling us what they felt it was going to do, we decided at that time it would be best to go ahead and start on our actions for a snow event. We provided the information that we had to the school systems to assist them in making their decision on what they were going to do, whether they were going to dismiss early or stay all day.”

By the end of that 9 a.m. meeting, the snow had already started falling, and the schools shifted into full gear to get students home.

“People don’t realize that if the school system announces at 9 o’clock in the morning that they’re going to dismiss early, it takes an hour and a half to get the buses ready to start picking up kids and running their routes,” Craig said. “It’s not something you can snap your fingers and do.”

The rush of children and factory workers heading home overwhelmed the road system, especially when the snow started to stick to the asphalt immediately and turn into a compacted layer of ice.

Whitfield County Public Works Director DeWayne Hunt said his department had also been keeping a close watch on the forecast and in the days and hours prior to the arrival of the snow had shifted salt, sand and equipment into strategic locations to be ready to begin treating the roads.

Unfortunately, he said, the storm checked off all the boxes for the worst possible scenario.

“Ideally we’d love to see a snow start about 10 o’clock Saturday night, finish about 2 Sunday morning, and that gives us about an 18-hour head start on the Monday morning rush hour,” Hunt said. “And if the asphalt was above freezing when the snow began, and if it was a moist snow, it would be even better. That’s my idea of the ‘perfect’ snow storm.”

Last week’s storm, however, proved Mother Nature is still in control, with the snow hitting during the middle of the day, with thousands of workers and students already at work or school. It didn’t help that because of the extremely cold temperatures earlier in the month, the asphalt was at 28 degrees, giving a perfect surface for the snow to adhere to.

“The type of snow we saw was really dry and really fine,” Hunt said, “and stuck to the road immediately. Then with as much traffic as we had on the road around lunch, it compacted hard to the asphalt. In the past, we’ve had very limited success plowing this kind of snow off the road because it’s more a layer of ice than snow. Last week, we had some roads that scraped several areas two to three times and just could not get them 100 percent clear.”

Crews from the county began applying a gravel-salt mixture to the roads beginning Tuesday morning, “we typically don’t put that down too early prior to the snow because traffic will just beat it off and push it to the side,” Hunt said.

He praised the efforts of his 70 county public works employees, who worked around the clock on the roads. While some went home to rest, about 20 stayed all night Tuesday and Wednesday to provide road clearance in case of medical or other emergencies.

“Once we get started,” Hunt said, “we’ve got to go 24 hours a day until we get most all the road network clear.”

To combat the treacherous roads, the county used a collection of equipment, including two large and two small dump truck spreaders to apply the salt-gravel.

Because of the type of snow, they weren’t able to use four motor graders to blade what quickly turned into a layer of ice.

“We’ve also got 11 pickup truck plows with small 500-pound spreaders on the back of those and five other small dump truck plows, so that gives us more plows than we’ve ever had,” Hunt said.

The county put some new equipment to work, too, with Hunt praising the cable chains that were used on the tires of their pickup trucks to help gain traction in the ice.

“They’re configured like the old-style chains,” Hunt said, “but they’re a lot quicker and easier to put on. They also ride a lot smoother when we go from ice and snow onto bare asphalt and then back.”

Fortunately, despite the inconvenience to residents, injuries were few and far between.

In fact, one of the county’s spreaders lost traction, slid down the middle of Miracle Drive and rolled over into a ditch, but the two employees inside were not hurt.

“Southerners get a bad reputation for not being able to drive in the snow, but last week we weren’t really driving on snow, we were driving on ice,” Hunt pointed out.

Those treacherous road conditions kept the 911 Center busy.

Craig says on Jan. 28 and 29, the 911 Center answered 1,955 calls, including 1,021 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. that Tuesday.

“Through the whole time period, our average time on answering a 911 call was 4.23 seconds, which is well below industry standard,” he said. “I would like to praise all of my emergency management and 911 staff for doing a great job through a chaotic period.”

Many of those calls were for motor vehicle accidents, including 187 documented crashes with no injuries and another nine crashes with injuries, the most severe injury being a broken leg.

With the potential for more wintry weather in the weeks ahead, local officials aren’t resting.

In fact, Hunt expects the public works department to have a difficult time acquiring additional salt for the next possible storm. Operations Manager Mike Turner has been calling across the Southeast to locate additional salt. And it could be worse. The Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn has responded to 31 winter storms already, forcing them to use 50 to 100 tons of salt per storm.

Planning has already started in case of another storm, with Hunt’s department working on a clearance sequence to maximize the effectiveness of their time out on the roads.

“We have been working on the details to for a while. Our sequence should increase the blade time during plowing operations,” Hunt said. “We have key corridors that we need to get open first, which will allow first responders the ability to move around the county quicker. That will allow us to get more blade time per hour, so that we are not just going in a random pattern.”

Unfortunately, that sequencing plan might not have been effective in last week’s snow because of the heavy traffic on the roads until that night.

The county is also opening bids soon on placing GPS units on “our most critical assets so that we can track them,” Hunt said.

“Even if it’s not a snow operation, for instance cleaning up tornado damage and things like that, we would be able to know quickly determine where the equipment is at all times,” he said. “I like to think that I know where each crew is located, but with an area as large as Whitfield County it’s very difficult.

“We think the GPS will add lot of value during a crisis. We should be able to identify what asset is the area and ready to assist so we’re not back tracking and doing a lot of unnecessary movement.”

For future snow events, Hunt is asking local residents to do him one favor. If they must abandon their vehicles on the road, try to park them all on the same side of the road to allow the county’s trucks room to do their job.

Of course, last week’s storm proved to be the perfect, or imperfect, mix.

“Comparing this snow with others, I can’t say that I would drastically change any of our methods or effort,” Hunt said. “The time of day, the type of snow, traffic and the preceding temperatures all worked against us, worked against every department, not just ours — the city, county, surrounding counties all had a tough time handling this one.”

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