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Bracing for the worst weather in Atlanta

Bill Torpy and Rhonda Cook, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution • Dec 17, 2015 at 5:57 PM

ATLANTA (MCT) – For days, forecasters predicted a winter storm of "historic proportions," a catastrophic icy blast that on Tuesday stopped an apprehensive city in its tracks.

And now that it's here, the eyes of a nation are glancing this way.

ABC World News Tonight led a broadcast saying, "The South is now eager to prove it has learned how to handle this ugly weather." Well, not exactly eager. But it seems the region is certainly ready _ from the once-bitten Gov. Nathan Deal, who called a state of emergency well in advance of the nasty brew of sleet, snow and ice, to a weary population that is doing its part by essentially doing nothing.

Thousands heeded warnings from state and local officials and stayed off the roads Tuesday, away from work and school. It's a strategy hard learned from the debacle two weeks ago when metro Atlanta froze in place in an extended, hellish rush hour.

Randy Speer, a 41-year-old Department of Education worker who was heading home from work on MARTA early Tuesday afternoon, believes Georgia officials are ready this time.

"They obviously know how to get it wrong," Speer said. "Now they can do it right." On Tuesday, Deal and officials from the city of Atlanta, Georgia Power, the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency all vowed they are ready for action.

Deal cautioned drivers not to be lulled into complacency by the afternoon's relatively mild weather and predicted Wednesday will be bad.

"This is one of Mother Nature's worst kinds of storms," said Deal. "We're not kidding. We're not crying wolf." Deal declared a state of emergency for 91 counties, covering much of the northern half of the state.

The National Weather Service is warning of a wave of "crippling ice" and dire conditions that could topple power lines and turn roads into icy messes.

Aaron Strickland, Georgia Power's emergency operations director, said the state could experience the worst ice he's seen in 35 years with the utility.

During the ice storm of 2000, "We had a half-inch of ice and had 350,000 outages," said Strickland.

Added Deal, "I would be prepared to be without power for days." As predictions of the storm's intensity worsened, Georgia Power brought in 2,500 additional workers from electrical utilities in Texas, Florida and Mississippi to join the company's local repair crews. Many of the local crews were called back from northern states where they were sent to help out.

Motorists on highways in South Georgia saw convoys with scores of utility and tree repair crews heading to where the ice was to hit. The Augusta area was projected Tuesday to get double the amount forecast in metro Atlanta.

State officials were marshaling resources. State forestry and defense departments have four-wheel drive vehicles for emergency transport of medical personnel and patients in trouble. The departments of Natural Resources and Corrections have "strike teams" of people with chain saws to clear debris. Dozens of emergency shelters, including seven state parks and National Guard armories, are available for those stranded on the roads or without power for the long term. And the state is also providing Humvees to help rescue stranded motorists, although one Guardsman joked that the large awkward vehicles sometimes operate like "elephants on ice skates." An Atlanta Kroger parking lot was packed Tuesday with beer and wine deliverymen restocking a depleted alcohol aisle. Store employee Randy Harps was busy putting more goods on the shelves. "We've been restocking since last night," he said. "I took some stuff home yesterday in case I get stuck here tonight. Last time (two weeks ago), I worked 22 hours." Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, speaking from Atlanta's Joint Operations Center, said advance notice of the storm has given the area a leg-up in preparation this time. Road crews, working 12-hour shifts, hit the streets Tuesday afternoon and were set to repeat the process as rain turned to ice and to snow.

"We are way ahead of the game," Cochran said.

Atlanta has received requests from neighboring jurisdictions for salt and road crews, officials confirmed Tuesday.

The city is also preparing to open a swath of recreation centers, churches, and fire and police stations to serve as temporary shelter. In addition to working with local hospitals, officials are also preparing to open a special needs shelter for residents who require medical attention such as dialysis.

MARTA officials said they would cancel all bus and Mobility (para-transit) service Wednesday for safety concerns. Keith T. Parker, MARTA's general manager and chief executive officer, said the agency would restore service "as soon as it's feasible." MARTA's rail system will continue to operate, but on a weekend schedule. Rail service will begin at 4:35 a.m. with trains running approximately every 15 minutes on all lines until about 2 a.m. on Thursday.

Virtually all area schools were closed Tuesday. The state school board will consider a resolution next week giving school districts the flexibility to not make up as many as four of the school days already lost because to winter weather. State law requires districts to have at least 180 instructional days, but many have already used waivers to chop that calendar down to save money.

Schools will almost assuredly remain closed through Thursday.

Now, the area settles in and waits for a thaw.

Deal suggested a plan of action that tens of thousands of Georgians are probably already taking: "If you lose power, make the best of it. Read a book.

"The main thing," he said, "is to use common sense."

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