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Icy conditions still plague region

Photo by Hugh Osteen

Photo by Hugh Osteen

By Johnny Jackson and Chet Fuller

jjackson@henryherald.com

The ice that caused hazardous driving and travel conditions throughout the Southern Crescent Monday and Tuesday, may continue to wreak havoc through the remainder of the week, according to Nate Mayes, meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Temperatures slowly crept above freezing Tuesday, melting some, but not all of the ice covering roadways in metro Atlanta. However, Mayes said, some roadways would re-freeze overnight, particularly those that were in low drainage areas, and invisible black ice would remain a potential travel hazard in coming days.

"It's going to be better than [Monday and Tuesday]," explained Mayes. He anticipates this week's frigid temperatures will persist through Friday -- the result of a cold front from the West following behind the low-pressure system that passed through the region late Sunday and early Monday.

High temperatures briefly peaked in the mid-30s Tuesday in cities throughout the Southern Crescent, he added. Heading into the evening hours, temperatures were expected to dip into the low 20s, with wind speeds increasing to 10-15 miles per hour and producing overnight wind-chills of around 10 degrees.

The meteorologist said he expects clouds to clear today, with high temperatures in the low 30s, under mostly sunny skies. He acknowledged that a gradual daytime warming trend should begin Thursday and progress through the weekend.

Sunny skies will aid warming into the mid-30s on Thursday, but low temperatures will fall back into the teens. Friday's highs are expected to be in the low 40s throughout the Southern Crescent, and in the low 50s on Saturday, he said, adding that there could be a chance for rain on Sunday.

"We are getting into the middle of winter," added Mayes, noting that the weekend weather forecast matches normal weather conditions for the region.

Mayes said the weather pattern this week was only abnormal in that the low-pressure system produced three different forms of precipitation -- freezing rain, sleet, and snow -- over about a 24-hour period that resulted in hazardous icing conditions. "Everything just lined up," he said.

Schools Closed Another Day

Henry County Schools will be closed again today, according to Henry County Schools Superintendent Ethan Hildreth. "We're hoping to be back in school on Thursday, and getting back to business," he said. "But at the same time, we want to be sure our decisions are based on students' safety, first and foremost."

The superintendent said these snow days could be used as unpaid furlough days for employees in the school district. "It's a possibility," he said, "but we have not made a decision on how we will manage the days."

Hildreth said the school district's general staff have two unpaid furlough days remaining on the calendar, out of the eight scheduled for this school year. Ten administrative furlough days were scheduled for year-round administrators.

Clayton County Public Schools officials decided, just before 6 p.m.,

Tuesday, to close schools on Wednesday, after a review of road

conditions in the county, and weather reports, said School System

Spokesman Charles White. He said no employees are to report to work,

and all school-related activities are cancelled as well. Clayton

Schools were also closed on Monday and Tuesday.

White said no decision has yet been made about closing Clayton schools

for the remainder of the week. "I can almost certainly tell you we are

going to go day-to-day on this," he said.

Clayton State University officials also decided to close the

Morrow-based university on Wednesday, after reviewing what other

University System of Georgia institutions were doing, said university

spokesman, John Shiffert. The university, like local school systems,

was closed on Monday and Tuesday.

Public Safety officials busy

The Henry County Fire Department kept busy Tuesday riding the ice, and dousing fires in the county.

"We've actually been putting chains on the tires for the last day or so," said Henry County Fire Chief Bill Lacy. "We've been doing it since the road conditions got bad [and] since the snow [came] 24-to-36 hours ago."

Lacy said the department has experienced a significant increase in call volumes this week. He said the department's call center received eight fire calls Monday and 61 total calls over the past two days. Tuesday's call volume was 27 percent higher than the same day a year ago.

"Those calls were health-or weather-related," said Lacy, noting that other calls were related to structural fires. He said the department responded to a structure fire shortly before 10 a.m., Tuesday, at 50 West Price Drive in Locust Grove. "It was a fully involved structure fire when we arrived," he said. "We extinguished the fire. We don't know the cause of the fire, or where the fire originated. That is still under investigation."

Henry County Sheriff Keith McBrayer said the sheriff's office and its jail functioned as it would on a normal day. He said about 95 percent of its jailers got to work, and very few of them needed help to be transported.

McBrayer said the sheriff's office limited the number of visitors to the county jail Monday, because they didn't want people traveling in adverse road conditions.

The Henry County Police Department reported more than 100 car accidents since the snow began falling on Sunday night. Seventeen of those were with minor injuries, according to Henry County Police Maj. Jason Bolton.

Bolton said most of calls to police were weather-related, and crime calls remained down Tuesday. The major said police closed a northbound portion of Interstate 75, near the Flippen Road Bridge overpass for two hours Tuesday, between 7 and 9 a.m., until Georgia Department of Transportation workers could salt the roadway.

"We did not see a need to declare a local disaster," said Don Ash, director of Henry County's 911 and Emergency Management Agency (EMA).

"We felt, internally, we have the capabilities that were needed in the county," Ash said. "We went to a Level 2 activation of our emergency operations, which is a part of our emergency operation plan.

Ash said the plan consisted of local officials meeting at the Henry County 911 Center. The local representatives included members of police, fire and rescue departments, the Sheriff's Office, the Henry County Department of Transportation, and the Henry County 911 Group.

"We came to prioritize calls," he said.

The EMA director said the representatives met to prioritize different calls -- from traffic calls, to fallen debris calls, to medical calls -- as well as to help get medical personnel to the appropriate place. An amateur radio group was also on hand to serve as back-ups for communications.

"Because Henry County did not declare a state of emergency, Henry County had to rely solely on its own resources," said Henry County Board of Commissioners Chairman Elizabeth "B.J." Mathis.

"I cannot praise the employees of the Department of Transportation, 911, Police and Fire, and the Sheriff's Department enough for their exceptional job over the past two days," she said.

Clayton County law enforcement agencies said the weather continued to cause minor traffic accidents, and road and highway closures, on Tuesday.

"[It was a] pretty quiet night [Monday]," said Clayton County Fire and Emergency Services Assistant Fire Chief Landry Merkison.

He said he believes the lack of incidents is due to people taking the advice of authorities and staying at home. According to Capt. Tina Daniel, a Clayton County Police Department public information officer, Clayton police were working to clear up accidents and stalled traffic as quickly as possible to make roads passable.

She said the department had also responded to quite a few domestic disputes, probably due to the fact that people cannot leave their residences.

Clayton County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman, Deputy Alicia Parkes, said deputies were assisting motorists with traffic problems, and helping "law enforcement personnel from our agency, as well as outside agencies, to get to, and from, work."

Meanwhile, Clayton County government officials announced, on the county's web site -- www.claytoncountyga.gov/ -- on Tuesday evening that the county's court system will be closed on Wednesday.

Many Roads Still Tricky

The Georgia Department of Transportation cut off access to Interstate 285 in northern Clayton County on Tuesday, as crews worked to clear what one DOT spokesperson called "a solid sheet of ice" on 285, south of Interstate 20.

Karlene Barron, a spokesperson for the department, said ice on I-285 caused backups and delays, particularly near Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

The state transportation department's traffic web site -- www.georgia-navigator.com -- showed there was "major congestion" on I-285, by the airport, at 1 p.m. Traffic information for that stretch of road became unavailable on the web site less than an hour later, however.

A major problem on I-285 has been stranded tractor trailer trucks, some of which had been stranded since Monday, said Barron.

"There's been wall-to-wall trucks stuck on the interstate [I-285], and cars have been stuck behind them," she said. "Traffic has been waiting extended periods of time to go anywhere, as a result. It's been a challenge moving the trucks, because, while they have been stuck, ice has formed around them. It's almost like we're having to dig them out."

Barron said 12 Georgia Department of Transportation de-icing trucks were brought in to spread salt, gravel, calcium, chloride and liquid deicer mixes on I-285, between Riverdale Road in Clayton County, and I-20 in DeKalb County, on Tuesday.

She added that the Georgia State Patrol was closing entrance ramps leading onto I-285, but drivers already on I-285 were being allowed to exit the interstate.

Barron added that Interstate 675 was de-iced Tuesday morning, and there were only "isolated pockets of ice" on I-75 in Clayton and Henry counties.

Barron said interstates are the department's main priority, and U.S. and state highways are "secondary" priorities. The state's transportation department had not yet had a chance to get to those highways, as of Tuesday afternoon, however, she said.

"There's been such a heavy amount of work done to get the interstate's clear, we really haven't been able to get to our secondary roads, yet."

The Georgia Department of Transportation is encouraging people to call 5-1-1, or go online, to either www.georgia-navigator.com, or www.dot.state.ga.us, to get up-to-date information on road conditions.

Another Lost Day For Shoppers

Southlake Mall in Morrow was closed Monday and Tuesday, according to a security officer who answered the mall's main phone number late Tuesday afternoon.

He said the public relations office for the mall was closed on Tuesday, and no spokesperson was available by phone. "The mall is closed today [due to] the weather," the security guard said.

"The plan is to open tomorrow [Wednesday] ... probably at 10 [10 a.m.] like normal," said the security officer. However, that information was unofficial, as it was not provided by a mall spokesperson.

The recorded voice message on the main phone listed for Southlake Mall anchor store, JCPenny, said the following on Tuesday afternoon:

"Due to inclement weather, our store will be closed today. This message will be updated tomorrow [Wednesday] morning, once our store hours are determined. We do appreciate your business, but encourage you to stay home, stay warm, and stay safe today."

Tanger Outlet Mall in Locust Grove was also closed Tuesday, according to a spokesperson, but will open Wednesday at 11 a.m.

Good News On Power Outages

There was some good news for residents in Clayton and Henry counties, however. Georgia Power Company Spokesperson Carol Boatright said the company had restored power to almost all of its customers in Georgia.

As of noon Tuesday, only 500 Georgia Power customers across the state were without power, Boatright said. She said only one of those customers -- a College Park resident -- was in the Southern Crescent.

"We expect to have power restored to everyone later today [Tuesday], especially if the wind dies down, just a little bit," Boatright said.

-- Staff writers Curt Yeomans, Mehgaan Jones, Linda Bond, Elaine Rackley and Maria-Jose Subiria contributed to this report.