Clayton County fire Chief Landry Merkison, right, listens to a county department head during a webinar discussion on this week's weather Tuesday afternoon. Also pictured is police Chief Greg Porter. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)
RIVERDALE — Although Clayton County got some experience with icy conditions when Winter Storm Leon dumped snow on the area a couple of weeks ago, fire Chief Landry Merkison said residents should expect more trouble this time around.
Metro Atlanta was originally expected to get hit twice by storm systems Tuesday with rain falling early in the day, and a second storm that mixed rain, sleet and some snow expected to come through later in the day. Overnight temperatures were expected to fall below freezing. However, the National Weather Service consolidated tat into one storm Tuesday afternoon, said Merkison.
Merkison said as much as three-quarters of an inch of ice is expected in Clayton County, based on predictions from the National Weather Service.
“They are predicting sleet and freezing rain pretty much all day ... so we will see significant accumulations of ice on power lines, tree limbs, bridges and overpasses first,” said Merkison during an interview Monday night. “From there, we will then see it on the roadways.
“They don’t expect the temperatures to be above freezing [today] so this event will carry over into Thursday,” he added.
While drivers may recall the ice that made driving difficult during Leon, officials are warning residents to prepare for it to bring possible power failures as well this time. That is a major issue Merkison and Georgia Power Storm Center Manager Aaron Strickland said the area will likely face today and tomorrow.
"Bridges and overpasses will go first, and then the power lines and trees will follow," Merkison told county leaders during a webinar conference call Tuesday afternoon.
During a press conference streamed live online from the governor’s office Monday, Strickland said the utility company opened its storm center Monday morning to begin organizing its response to the ice threat. Additional power crews from as far away as Michigan and Pennsylvania have been brought in to boost manpower, he said.
“Ice is probably one of the worst events we face and when you’re talking about the amount of ice that we’re looking at, it’s catastrophic,” said Strickland. “What will happen is the ice will build up on trees, the trees will come down and take down the power lines. It’s an event we’re extremely fearful of, but we’re preparing and bringing in outside help.”
Merkison said the problem is that greater accumulations of ice make power lines more susceptible to breaking. That’s because as ice forms on the power lines, it adds extra weight and puts additional strain on the lines.
“When you get a quarter of an inch of ice on the power lines and tree limbs, they start to fall,” said Merkison.
During the webinar Tuesday, Clayton County officials discussed possible facilities that have generators and can be used as emergency shelters if necessary.
Clayton began storm preparations Sunday
Like many people, Merkison spent the last few days checking weather forecasts and preparing for icy conditions.
He spent Monday and Tuesday mornings on conference calls with National Weather Service officials. His afternoons were then spent in talks with county leaders to plan out how they would respond to dangerous ice expected to cover roads today.
While the Georgia Emergency Management Agency opened its operations center Monday afternoon, Merkison said the Clayton County Office of Emergency Management “partially” opened its ops center Sunday.
The center was “fully activated” by Tuesday at 7 a.m., he added.
Throughout Monday and Tuesday, Merkison was in contact with Commission Chairman Jeff Turner, transportation and development Director Jeff Metarko and Superior Court chief Judge Deborah Benefield about the anticipated weather conditions.
When they met, Merkison updated Turner, Metarko and Benefield about the National Weather Services’ forecasts and they mapped out when courts and government offices should close and when crews should begin treating local roads. That was also the topic of the county-wide webinar.
The weather system moving through the area today has had officials skittish about sending students to school out of fear that the storm will result in a repeat of Leon, when hundreds of pupils were stranded overnight at schools. Several school systems, including Clayton County Public Schools, cancelled classes for Tuesday and today.
Since Clayton students already had Thursday, Friday and the beginning of next week off for a previously scheduled winter holiday, classes will not resume until next Tuesday.
“They were looking at what other school systems were doing and everybody north of them was closing Tuesday and Wednesday, so they decided to follow suit,” said Merkison.
Drivers urged to stay off roads
Although many school systems shut their doors long before the bad weather was expected because of their experience with Leon, the one lesson state officials hope residents learned from from last months storm was to stay off the roads.
During the state’s press conference at the governor’s office earlier this week, Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Keith Golden said the agency began mobilizing its crews at the beginning of the week. Additional crews were brought up from south Georgia to assist with de-icing efforts around metro Atlanta and the north Georgia mountains.
Golden pledged the state had enough salt and sand to handle the ice because it began replenishing its supply immediately after Leon.
But Merkison warned drivers that although it was possible to drive — albeit cautiously — during Leon, this storm will be a “completely different monster all around” and driving will not be as easy of a task to perform.
“That one was mainly snow and the problem we had, that Atlanta also experienced, was that the roads had been so warm that the first snow that fell melted and as the temperatures dropped, it turned to ice,” he said. “But had a snow pack on top of the ice and that allowed people to drive on the ice because you were actually driving on that snow pack and that provided some traction.
“The main difference here is they’re not predicting any snow in Clayton. It’s just going to be ice and there’s just no driving on it,” Merkison added.
Gov. Nathan Deal, meanwhile, urged residents to stay off the roads so DOT crews can remove ice from roadways.
“Please use your own best judgment and don’t put yourself and your family in jeopardy,” said Deal during a press conference Monday. “The clearer the roads are, the more we have the ability to treat those roads and get them open as quickly as possible.”
Residents urged to track Clayton conditions on social media
Although Clayton County residents will likely be home-bound today and possibly Thursday because of the ice, Merkison said they will be able to track conditions in the county via social networking websites.
The Clayton County Office of Emergency Management has a page on Facebook that residents can “Like” to keep up with storm updates. The office can be found on Twitter with the handle, @ClaytonCoOEM, as well. Merkison encouraged residents check both accounts for news.
“That’s going to be the best way,” he said “The fire department and police department PIOs [public information officers] will be posting information for residents on social media through the storm.”