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North Ga. endures harsh freeze, braces for next storm
Thousands still out of power as deep freeze grips state
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Russell Highsmith, Georgia Power senior storekeeper out of Pinesville helps organize materials Wednesday for Georgia Power workers to restore power in Hall County at a shopping center parking lot on Browns Bridge Road. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Gainesville and Hall County schools closed today. View full closings list

See a photo slideshow from the ice storm as captured by Times photographers

After snow flurries fell amid trees and power lines still encased in ice Wednesday, local officials began preparing for more wintry weather this weekend.

The National Weather Service forecast calls for temperatures in the mid-20s today and another drop into the teens overnight into Friday morning. A chance of snow and freezing rain returns Friday night and a winter storm watch is in effect until 1 p.m. Saturday.

As of 8 a.m., the temperature fell to 11 degrees at the NWS recording station at Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville, with a wind chill of 5-below zero. It was 5 degrees in Blairsville with a 12-below wind chill.

Gov. Nathan Deal on Wednesday afternoon extended a state of emergency in Hall County an additional day.

“It allows for continued state resources for recovery efforts, such as debris removal, and helps to get the power back on,” said Deal’s spokesman Brian Robinson.

Power remained out Wednesday evening for thousands of Hall County residents between those served by Jackson EMC, Sawnee EMC and Georgia Power. Lumpkin, Banks, Jackson, Dawson and Forsyth counties also were hard-hit.

Power line crews from out of state gathered in the parking lot of Dick’s Sporting Goods at Lakeshore Mall on Wednesday afternoon as wind gusts swirled snow.

Workers said things are slowly getting back to normal, but a lot of work remains to get power restored for all county residents.

Crews were busy in neighborhoods around downtown Gainesville, which were hit hard by falling trees and outages.

Jackson EMC restored power to an additional 5,800 customers overnight, leaving about 10,000 still without power, about 4,800 of those in Hall County, as of 8 a.m.

Jackson EMC restores power typically on a first-come, first-served approach, but it also seeks to fix outages for the largest number of members as quickly as possible.

“Our personnel, assisted by contractor crews and crews from other electric cooperatives, are working to clear these outages,” said Jackson EMC spokeswoman Bonnie Jones. “We still have broken power poles to replace, and increased winds can hamper restoration efforts. We ... are anticipating that we may have a few thousand more difficult outages scattered throughout our service area to clear (today).”

Georgia Power on Wednesday afternoon reported 12,200 customers without power in Northeast Georgia, with over 2,700 in Hall County alone. That number was down to a little more than 1,300 by 10:30 p.m. Wednesday.

“Some of these are new outages that may be happening from wind and trees or branches that come down,” said John Kraft, Georgia Power spokesman.

Another night without power meant many Hall County residents were forced to leave their homes and take up residence at local hotels.

There was no availability at the Holiday Inn Gainesville-Lanier Centre and Hampton Inn Gainesville on Wednesday night.

Robert Tapp, manager at the Hampton Inn, said he had received thousands of calls over the last 48 hours from local residents looking for a room.

“We’re one of the only hotels that didn’t lose power,” he said.

A Red Cross warming center remains in operation at First Baptist Church, 751 Green St. in Gainesville. Two other warming centers at local churches have closed due to low turnout.

Roads were mostly passable Wednesday, though downed trees still blocked some.

“This is still very much a work in progress and a dynamic situation,” said Gainesville Public Works Director David Dockery. “The numbers are escalating as we speak.”

Dockery said Public Works employees had already logged 173 overtime hours by midday Wednesday.

Tree removal remains a priority, Dockery said, but in many instances Public Works has to wait until power companies clear fallen electrical lines.

“It’s kind of an all-hands-on-deck operation,” Dockery said, adding that personnel have been pulled from other departments to help with the storm response.

With temperatures in the single digits overnight the next few days, local public safety officials are concerned about the prospect of bursting pipes and more fallen tree limbs.

And with the ground thoroughly soaked, the prospect of entire trees uprooting remains a dangerous threat to motorists and pedestrians, Couch said.

Officials are also warning the public about safe warming practices, including the proper use of space heaters and how to build and contain fires.

County fire officials said they remain on high alert at the Resource Operation Center, though storm response scaled back slightly Wednesday due to lower call volumes.

Now, fire officials are preparing for the next wave of winter weather.

“We are preparing today for another possible system to move in Friday,” said Hall County Fire Chief Jeff Hood. “If this occurs and it does create more calls and incidents, we will once again enact our heightened staffing protocol.”

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