Clayton County adopts new rules for opening warming, cooling centers

Officials were criticized over response to February ice storm

JONESBORO — Clayton County leaders adopted new changes to their emergency operations plan this week will set new guidelines for opening warming or cooling stations during extreme weather events.

The changes unanimously approved commissioners Tuesday address two opposite forms of weather: heat waves and storms that produce snow and ice. Commission Chairman Jeff Turner said the plan didn’t include clear rules for establishing places where residents could warm up or cool down during inclement weather, and that is being corrected.

Turner said that should help as the summer weather — included high temperatures — approaches.

“We’re making sure that’s included,” said Turner. “Basically, during inclement weather such as two or three days, or four or five days with 100 degrees weather, then they can come in and utilize our facilities and have air conditioning or heat [during snow and ice storms].”

The county has experienced 33 inclement weather incidents over the last 38 years, according to text of the new annex added to the plan. Two of those happened within a three-week period in January and February. County officials received praise for their handling of the first storm but faced criticism about not opening warming centers sooner during the second storm.

On the flip side, the document also shows the county experienced 90 days of temperatures over 90 degrees in 2011 and emergency management officials stated heat waves are becoming more common in the county and its surrounding area. One example they give of how harsh the heat can be is that a temperature of 96 degrees, mixed with 65-percent humidity, can feel like 121 degree temperatures.

“Weather extremes can produce one common challenge: loss of power,” according to the annex. “Whether long or short duration, the impact to our citizens may be life threatening and require opening a warming/cooling center.”

Under the new rules a warming station will be opened when “a combination of precipitation, wind chill, wind and temperature become life-threatening.” Officials are to consider opening cooling stations when high temperatures, humidity and the heat index combine to reach “extreme levels.”

Generally, they will be opened when power loss occurs, according to county documents. Turner and Emergency management Director Landry Merkison will jointly make the decision about opening centers by taking into account the area affected, the number of residents impacted and the expected length of power outages, according to the new annex.

Weather and road conditions, as well as the availability of facilities will also be taken into consideration. Parks and Recreation Director Detrick Stanford will be consulted on the availability of a facility near the affected area, but a shortlist already includes the Jim Huie, Carl Rhodenizer, Virginia Gray and South Clayton recreation centers.

There are stipulations, however, that residents will have to expect when it comes to warming and cooling stations, according to the rules.

One stipulation is that food, medical services and overnight accommodations will not be provided at these facilities. The second is that such centers will not be opened when officials decide roadways are too unsafe for driving. The third is that residents will be responsible for getting themselves to the centers.

The county will announce the opening of warming and cooling centers through press releases and announcements on the county’s website, Clayton County Channel 23, the school board’s Channel 24, readyclayton.com, Facebook, Twitter and local media outlets including the Clayton News Daily.

The Georgia Emergency Management Agency’s public information officer will also be asked to help disseminate information.