The cleanup is underway from a North Georgia ice storm that began Monday as a mild threat but by Tuesday morning had turned into a tree-snapping, power-sapping, road-blocking mess.
The thick coating of ice on trees and power lines left tens of thousands in the area without power and sent trees and limbs crashing into roadways, homes and yards.
Capt. Joe Carter of the Hall County Sheriff’s Office said most of the main roads had been cleared, but back roads still presented problems for drivers.
“In 34 years, this is the most significant damage I have seen personally as far as the downed trees and the amount of power lines and problems that we’ve had related to the ice on the trees,” Carter said.
Hall County Fire Services Deputy Chief Chad Black reported thousands of trees down throughout the area.
A warming station is available at the First Baptist Church of Gainesville at 751 Green St. Anyone needing transportation can call 770-531-7161.
A second station is available at Poplar Spring Baptist Church at 3104 Poplar Springs Church Road but is closing at 4 p.m. today. Flat Creek Baptist Church at 5504 Flat Creek Road will operate a warming station; no food is available there.
The call volume in a 10-hour period totaled 1,700 calls, said Hall County public information officer Katie Crumley, reaching a level unseen in the past 20 to 30 years.
Calls involving downed trees and transformers without a threat to life moved down on the priority list for first responders.
“The life safety involvement of the calls was a high priority, so the lower priority calls just had to wait. At one time, we had over 100 (low-priority) calls in waiting,” Hall Fire Chief Jeff Hood said.
Thousands lose power
As of 7:45 a.m. today, Jackson EMC reported almost 30,000 customers still without power, about 17,000 of those in Hall County, 40 percent of its customers. It had restored about half of its outages. Thousands more were out in Jackson, Lumpkin and Banks counties.
At the peak of its outages Tuesday morning, Jackson reported some 76,000 without power. The company brought in dozens of outside crews in addition to its own, some 350 more workers. Crews were dealing with broken poles in addition to lines downed by trees and limbs, and the company estimates having power restored by late today.
Jackson was mobilizing another 105 line crews from contractors and other electric cooperatives as far away as Virginia and Alabama, spokeswoman Bonnie Jones reported this morning.
“Since the storm hit, we have restored power to 46,258 customers, but we understand the anxiousness of those still waiting for their power to come on,” said Jackson EMC President/CEO Chip Jakins in a news release. “ Our goal is to restore most Jackson EMC customers’ power by the end of the day, conditions permitting.”
Georgia Power had approximately 13,600 customers without power in Gainesville this morning, which remained the most affected area. More than 100,000 in the region were out during the peak of the storm, but representative Holly Crawford said Tuesday night the company hopes to have 95 percent back online by this afternoon.
A wind advisory is in effect for Hall County from 11 this morning to 7 tonight, which could bring down more trees and large limbs, especially for those that still have a coating of ice. The National Weather Service forecasts a high of 35 today and a low of 19 tonight, which means melting will be limited. The temperature isn’t expected to get above freezing until Saturday, at 44. Saturday also brings another chance of freezing rain.
Most schools closed again
Gainesville City Schools and Hall County Schools will remain closed Wednesday, though Hall County Schools asked 12-month employees to report to work at 9 a.m. if possible. Lakeview Academy also will be closed, along with several other school systems.
University of North Georgia campuses were delaying opening until 11 a.m. today.
Brenau University dormitories were out of power Tuesday evening and administrators offered to bring students to the Brenau Downtown Center, which had power, to stay the night. Classes were canceled for a second day today.
“They got them all fed in the dining hall, which has been operational the whole time,” said David Morrison, vice president of communications and publications. “Then the plan was those who want to go can go over there and basically have a slumber party.”
Trees, not ice, block roads
Area road crews didn’t have to worry much Tuesday about clearing roads of ice — nor will they today — but they stayed busy picking up debris, particularly fallen tree limbs.
Between Monday morning and Tuesday evening, Hall County had received some 350 calls about fallen trees, with crews working nonstop to clear them from the roads, Crumley said.
“They’ll continue through (Tuesday) night and all day (Wednesday),” she said. “They are hopeful they will have everything cleared by (Wednesday) evening.”
Crews “are having to work with power companies because the county cannot touch any trees that are on a power line,” Crumley said. “So, there are two entities dealing with the trees — part of it is the utilities and part of it is road maintenance.”
Still, trees should be removed from most of the major roadways, she said.
“Now, (crews) are getting back into the secondary neighborhood roads,” Crumley said.
David Dockery, public works director,advised motorists to use “extreme caution” and limit travel to major thoroughfares and state highways. He reminded drivers to treat intersections where the traffic signal has no power like a four-way stop.
Gainesville spokeswoman Catiel Felts said, “The city is gathering prices on tree removal and debris cleanup but expects to be able to do most of the work (itself) as soon as the power lines are removed.”
Teri Pope, Georgia Department of Transportation district spokeswoman, said it’s “not an exaggeration to say we’ve had thousands of trees fall in state routes and interstates.”
Hardest hit was Dawson County, where trees were down “on every state route (and) there are power lines down with them. And that means traffic signals are out or dark.”
Forsyth County suffered similar problems, with emergency personnel responding to more than 300 calls of road obstructions, 90 downed wires and 14 wrecks amid a total of more than 1,200 calls.
Hospital maintains operations
Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville was able to mostly maintain normal operations, even through the brunt of Monday’s ice storm.
Jennifer Davis, emergency preparedness manager, said Tuesday was “essentially a normal day.”
The hospital did lose main power for about 45 minutes Monday night, but “our backup generators kept us running as usual.”
One issue has been that falling trees, limbs and other debris kept some staff from making it to work Tuesday morning, but “their coworkers, schedulers and leaders did a great job stepping up to fill the shifts.”
Also, a few surgeries have been rescheduled due to patients, surgeons or staff unable to get to the hospital.
Staff writers Nicholas Watson, Jeff Gill, Kristen Oliver and Keith Albertson contributed to this story as well as reports from the Forsyth County News.