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Wicked winter storm rattles Southern Crescent

Photo by Hugh Osteen

Photo by Hugh Osteen

By Chet Fuller, Heather Middleton and Hugh O'Steen

cfuller@news-daily.com

A powerful, winter storm that originated out west and bowled its way into metro Atlanta late Sunday night, shut down schools, closed courts, government offices, roads and shopping malls. It disrupted the world's busiest airport and had the Southern Crescent reeling on Monday.

School, government, transportation and weather officials were expecting the storm's punch to extend, at least, into today, with overnight and morning temperatures remaining below freezing, causing the slush on roads and bridges to refreeze, creating potential driving hazards again on Tuesday.

Tuesday afternoon may provide some, slight relief, with things improving more on Wednesday according to Meteorologist Vaughn Smith, of the National Weather Service, who added that a low-pressure system out of Texas dumped a half-inch to nine inches of snow on northern Georgia.

"The bulk of the precipitation ended early Monday afternoon," he said. "The high temperatures will hold around freezing today, but are expected to dip to around 26 degrees overnight, causing roadways to refreeze."

Temperatures in the Southern Crescent Wednesday are expected to rise to highs in the lower-to mid-40s, Smith said. Then, high temperatures through Friday will be in the upper 30s, to mid-40s. Smith said there is a possibility, and a slight possibility of a rain-freezing-rain mix, Saturday evening heading into Sunday. He added that it is possible that some of the accumulated ice will melt off Tuesday, during the day.

Schools Closed

Even though TV weather forecasters had been warning of the coming storm, many in the metro area were still surprised by the severity of the storm. Most metro-area school systems closed Monday, and many of them will remain closed on Tuesday.

Henry County School officials said they closed schools as a safeguard to the system's 40,500 students and more than 5,000 employees. School Superintendent Ethan Hildreth said: "The top priority is always student safety, and the safety of employees. We coordinate with local agencies -- The Henry County Department of Transportation and the Henry County Emergency Operations Center -- in monitoring the weather conditions."

He added that these snow days could work as furlough days for employees, but that an official decision on that has not been made, yet.

Clayton County Public Schools Spokesman Charles White said the school system, which was closed on Monday, will remain closed on Tuesday as well. Early Monday afternoon, White said, school officials decided, on Sunday night, to close the schools on Monday, because snow was already beginning to accumulate on the roadways in the county by 9 p.m.

District officials were concerned that ice on the roads would make it difficult for school buses to transport students, White said.

At 4:50 p.m., on Monday, White announced that school officials did not feel like they had seen enough improvement on the roads, so they decided to close the schools on Tuesday as well. No school system employees are to report to work, he said.

A Clayton County Board of Education meeting scheduled for Monday evening is "postponed until further notice," White added.

The weather also shut down Clayton State University, on what was supposed to be the first day of its spring 2011 semester. University officials announced the closings Sunday evening, amid a flurry of closings at other colleges and universities across metro Atlanta, including the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), and Georgia State University.

Since the university was closed, all non-classroom activities ended up being cancelled as well, including a performance by the Philos Brass Quintet for area school children, at Clayton State's Spivey Hall.

Local Governments Shut Down

Schools were not the only institutions feeling the storm's wrath. Clayton County Spokesperson Jamie Carlington said county government will be closed again Tuesday, with only "essential personnel," mainly public safety employees, having to report to work.

"It has shut down the City of Jonesboro," said Jonesboro Mayor Luther Maddox, on Monday. He said the wintry mix brought the city "to a complete standstill," forcing Jonesboro City Hall to be closed, as well as the cancellation of a city council meeting that was scheduled to take place Monday evening.

Maddox said city hall will be closed on Tuesday as well, and the city council meeting will be rescheduled for some time after the storm is gone, and the city's streets are safe.

"The roads are just impassable, so it's better to err on the side of caution," he added.

Public Safety Workers Busy

With treacherous roads throughout Henry County as well, the county's police officers were kept busy responding to numerous accidents, from 5 a.m., and continuing through the day, Monday, according Henry County Police Deputy Chief Stoney Mathis.

Mathis said there were few injuries, however, and none of them serious. He added that a possible bright side to the bad weather was that "the call volume of crime was down ... "

The Clayton County Police Department, the Clayton County Sheriff's Office, and Clayton County Fire and Emergency Services reported delays, road closures and numerous accidents, but no fatalities.

"We are telling people to stay off the roads," said Clayton County Police public information officer, Sgt. Otis Willis.

He said there were major accidents, in Forest Park, at I-75 South and Old Dixie Road; at I-85 South and Forest Parkway; and at I-285 West at Old Dixie Road. On Monday afternoon, road closures in the county included:

* I-285 west to I-75 South.

* Highway 138, east of North Main Street, in Jonesboro.

* I-75 South between Holiday Road and Old Dixie Road, in Morrow.

* Riverdale Road at Walker Road, in Riverdale.

* Highway 85 at Rountree Road, in Riverdale.

* Lake Harbin Road at Maddox Road, in Morrow.

* Valley Hill Road, in Riverdale.

* Forest Parkway at Joy Lake Road, in Jonesboro.

* McDonough Road west of Tara Boulevard, in Hampton.

* Creel Road at West Fayetteville Road, in College Park.

* I-285 east-connector distributor lanes.

* Poplar Springs Road, in College Park.

Dodged the Power Outage Bullet

Even though the roads were a major headache, the Southern Crescent appeared to have dodged a bullet Sunday and Monday with few power outages in the area. Georgia Power Spokesperson Carol Boatright said there were 7,000 power outages reported in the state just before 1 p.m., Monday, but the metro-Atlanta area only made a dozen of those reported calls.

"Metro Atlanta has been vastly spared," Boatright said. "We've not seen nearly as many power outages as we were expecting."

She said just over 100 customers in Locust Grove were without power Monday morning, although the company reported it as the "Jonesboro area" on its Twitter page. She said power had been restored to all of those customers by 12:30 p.m. The only remaining outages in Clayton and Henry counties, just before 1 p.m., were three individual locations in Jonesboro, Boatright added.

Georgia Power also announced that it will be posting information about major power outages on its Twitter page, www.twitter.com/GeorgiaPower/.

Snapping Shoals EMC and Central Georgia EMC customers were mostly lucky, too, on Monday. Snapping Shoals, which has nearly 100,000 power customers in North Henry, Rockdale, Newton, and Butts counties, and parts of DeKalb and Walton counties, had no reported outages, according to the company.

Christy Chewning, manager of marketing for Central Georgia EMC,

Said there were no outages among the company's customers, as of late Monday, in Henry County. Central Georgia serves 50,000 customers in 14 counties. It did have power outages in Monroe County (300 outages) and Jasper County (70 outages), she said.

"We've been pretty fortunate not to have many outages," she said. "We have crews on standby, that will be called as outages are reported."

Shopaholics Had To Take A Break

With schools closed and many people home from their jobs, the phone lines to a local TV station's help desk got many calls from people wanting to know if shopping malls were open.

To the callers' disappointment, most major malls in metro Atlanta were closed Monday. The phone at the main offices of South Lake Mall in Morrow, rang and rang with no answer Monday afternoon.

Many of the malls in the metro area are operated by the Simon Property Group, which is headquartered in Indianapolis, Ind. Simon Spokesperson Les Morris said, Monday, that South Lake Mall is not a Simon Mall. He said, however, that all of the Simon Malls in the Atlanta area were closed Monday. Those include Lenox Square, Phipps Plaza, Gwinnett Place Mall, Mall of Georgia, and Town Center at Cobb, in Kennesaw.

"Our number one concern is for the safety of our customers, tenants and employees, " Morris said. He added that Simon malls in metro Atlanta are expected to have a delayed opening on Tuesday, and open at noon.

Not all local stores were closed on Monday, however. The Walgreens on Tara Boulevard, at Highway 138 in Jonesboro, was open, from 8 a.m., until 7 p.m., according to Store Manager Nicole Porter. She said the store at 7935 Tara Boulevard is usually open 365 days per year, from 8 a.m. , to 10 p.m., but it was closing at 7 p.m., Monday, "because of the weather. We gotta go home."

Porter said, despite the weather, customer traffic was steady. "It was a little slower, but people were still coming in," she said. The store manager said people were "buying groceries. "Some people would come and get prescriptions .... then, movies, all kinds of stuff," she said.

She added that her Walgreens location expects to be open from, 8 a.m., until 7 p.m., today.

-- Staffers Curt Yeomans, Linda Bond, Mehgaan Jones, Johnny Jackson, Elaine Rackley, and Maria-Jose Subiria contributed to this report.