Clayton County fire Chief Landry Merkison, at left, and Assistant Chief Tim Sweat head the first Severe Weather Task Force meeting to prepare for winter ice storms. (Staff Photo: Kathy Jefcoats)
RIVERDALE — Remember the first of the year when the metro area got hit with three back to back ice storms that crippled traffic and, much like Sherman did 150 years ago, brought Atlanta to its knees?
Unlike Sherman, ice storms can return to hit the region any given winter and preparation is key. Clayton County fared better than most, with emergency personnel getting ahead of the conditions and being proactive.
Fire Chief Landry Merkison, who is also director of Clayton County Emergency Management Agency, began meeting with other county leaders Tuesday to prepare even better for the coming winter.
“Even as well as things went last time, there are still things we can learn from and do better,” he said. “Our plan is to start early and be prepared.”
Representatives from Clayton County Police Department, sheriff’s office, Georgia Power, CERT, transportation and development, public health, Southern Regional Medical Center, IT, board of commissioners, and fire and emergency services form a Severe Weather Task Force.
The committee will meet regularly through the fall to make sure the county is as prepared as possible if last winter’s storms make a repeat appearance.
But residents should be ready to take care of themselves for the first 72 hours.
“That’s how long it takes for officials to assess the situation and get plans going,” said Merkison. “Residents should expect to be self-sufficient for 72 hours.”
There is a checklist of items each house should stockpile on readyclayton.com. Additionally, residents should set aside items specific to their own families. Pets and babies have special needs, for example.
Merkison said it is never too early to plan for weather-related power outages, which in the winter typically equates to not having heat. During the last storm, some residents expected that because they lost power and had no heat, officials would come into neighborhoods and take them to warming centers.
That scenario was not feasible.
“No one had power,” he said. “We had no place to take people. People might see lights on at schools but the generators at most schools don’t operate the HVAC systems. Residents should prepare to shelter in place.”
Staying off the roads during an ice storm is also paramount to safety. Deputy Chief Jacque Feilke said during January’s storm that one of the biggest obstacles was ensuring rescue vehicles had safe passage for calls.
“Emergency vehicles were running nonstop on all vehicle accidents,” she said earlier this year. “Some of our units got stuck on the way to calls but we were able to get them moving again without much trouble.”
Personnel battled icy roads but also civilian traffic.
“We just needed to keep roads clear for emergency vehicles,” said Feilke.
Feilke said residents without Internet access can call the EMA office at 770-473-7833 for information on what they need to stock ahead of being stranded in their homes, for possibly several days without power.
Should power return to designated warming centers before residential neighborhoods, residents can stay there if necessary.
Stranded residents who survive on medical equipment such as oxygen tanks are understandably anxious during the winter storms, said Merkison. Homebound patients panic and immediately want to go to hospital.
“We have a medical advice line and it stayed busy,” he said. “We tracked 26 or 27 patients during the storm for close to 48 hours until the power was back up. We even took oxygen bottles to three or four people to keep them off the roads.”
Keeping emergency and public safety personnel safe while on the roads was discussed during the meeting. Clayton County police Deputy Chief Gina Hawkins said patrol cars will need tire chains of varying sizes.
“It happened very, very fast,” she said. “It was ice from the start. By the time we got the chains last time, it was too late.”
Officers on patrol also need a place to warm up so Merkison said they are always welcome to stop in at one of the county’s 14 fire stations.
Another topic discussed was storing ice to spread on roads. Tim Sweat, Clayton County fire assistant chief and chief financial officer, said officials will work to solving all these issues before the temperatures start to drop.
“Challenges, challenges,” he said. “Challenges at every turn.”