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Area leaders brace for winters worst
Governments work to prepare for repeat of 2011 ice storm
Noah Dabbs, with Hall County Fleet Maintenance, sprays sealer in the bed of a salt spreading truck last week. The sealing is part of the winter preparation for the trucks. - photo by Tom Reed

Coming Monday
Local emergency personnel say they are ready to handle winter weather, but some changes have been made to continue providing service despite budget cuts.

The winter forecast may call for warmer, drier weather, but the Georgia Department of Transportation and area governments aren't taking any chances.

Hope for the best, plan for the worst, they say.

A Jan. 10 storm that blasted North Georgia "kind of overwhelmed everybody's snow and ice removal capability, as (shown) by some of the roads being down so long," said David Dockery, Gainesville's public works director.

The DOT particularly caught flak over its storm response, as the harsh, icy weather basically crippled interstate travel to Atlanta.

In Hall County, particularly in South Hall where there was more ice than snow, some residents couldn't leave their subdivisions for several days. Oakwood City Manager Stan Brown recalls having to shuttle one of the City Council members to the monthly meeting, which city officials decided not to cancel.

After the storm, governments began revisiting and revising storm response plans. Policy, equipment and personnel were all part of the long, hard look.

"This winter, we will see more road closures until we can ensure the roads are clear and safe for use," said Teri Pope, spokeswoman for the DOT's Gainesville-based District 1.

"Most of our winter weather is ice, and ice is the most difficult roadway hazard to remove," she said. "Our roads are designed to be porous, (which) is great 10 months out of the year because of our typical rainfall."

However, during winter weather, "ice forms down in the crevices of the asphalt and it reforms very quickly."

"Also working against us is the number of bridges. These are much colder than roads because the cold air goes all around them, so ice forms there first and reforms there very quickly."

The DOT has added more "staging" locations where trucks can pick up salt and "reload faster," said David Spear, the DOT's press secretary.

District 1, which covers 21 counties, including Hall, has a new staging location off Interstate 85 in Suwanee.

"Another change is that we've increased our capacity of materials," Pope said. "At each staging area, we have more salt and stone than before."

For larger interstates, such as I-85 south of Interstate 985, the DOT plans to focus on keeping two outside lanes open for travel in each direction, "instead of working on all five lanes in each direction," Pope said.

The DOT also will have new equipment, including three front-end loaders and one tractor with backhoe.

"Our biggest task in my mind is managing some occasionally unrealistic expectations," Spear said.

"Our people work very hard and do everything they can do with the resources we have available, but our historic weather patterns do not dictate a massive investment in snow and ice removal equipment that may only be used once a decade.

"If we have a significant event, particularly an ice accumulation event, it is going to take time and warming temperatures before every lane of every road can be cleared," Spear said.

Jimmy Hightower, road maintenance supervisor for Hall County, said he believes county crews "weren't in too bad a shape" in last winter's storm, given the circumstances.

"When it comes to ice and hard-packed (snow), once the temperature drops to 20 degrees, you basically can't scrape it off the road," he said.

The Jan. 10 storm was followed by days of temperatures at or below freezing, and whatever was melted by the sunshine refroze later, particularly as night fell.

Also, Hall County is fully equipped this year to battle the elements, unlike last year.

"Some of the equipment (had arrived last year) but had to be assembled," Hightower said. "... And when you have a plow in front of a truck, you don't have to have an operator in a grader and an operator in a truck, so (the setup) lets you use your people a lot more.

"And with the (layoffs) that have happened in the county, that's a good thing to have - more utilization with less personnel."

Dockery said that if a big storm hits this winter, the plan is to "mobilize all the city's forces, not just public works, but public utilities, parks and recreation, the golf course - basically every unit that has heavy equipment at their disposal will be involved."

Last winter's storm wasn't typical — declared by officials as the worst in years — and this year's long-range forecast is hopeful, to an extent.

Georgia again will see La Niña, the atmospheric pattern characterized by warmer, drier weather.

However, the possibility lingers for another "Arctic oscillation," which, if it goes "negative," means the chance for severe winter weather.

It rarely happens in the Southeast, but last year it did.

"Last year was not typical and we learned from it," Dockery said. "If it happens again this year, I'm pretty confident we'll do a better job."

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