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Road officials, emergency personnel preparing for winter's weather
The Georgia Department of Transportation has its gravel and salt ready for the upcoming winter. The Georgia Emergency Management Agency and Homeland Security hosted a winter weather exercise Wednesday with more than 35 local and state agencies, along with the volunteer and private sectors.

With an ominous forecast and past struggles with icy weather, emergency officials are bracing for what may come this winter.

And those preparations were played out Wednesday as some 35 local and state agencies, as well as businesses and volunteer organizations, took part in an exercise at Georgia Public Broadcasting offices in Atlanta.

The event simulated a two-day winter weather event affecting North and Middle Georgia. Hall County knows this pain too well, as last year storms wreaked havoc, particularly with lengthy outages caused by ice-covered trees falling on power lines.

State officials said the exercise was geared to “help ensure maximum coordination of all partnering agencies during actual winter weather.”

“Everybody is engaged and talking through scenarios ... and with the long-range (El Niño) forecast, this is very, very timely,” Georgia Emergency Management Agency Director Jim Butterworth said.

Weather response recommendations that came out of the 2013-14 winter, which crippled traffic in and around Atlanta and drew national attention, were put to the test in the 2014-15 winter, he said.

“And now we’ve kind of learned and we’re able to go forward a little bit more,” Butterworth said.

As an example, he cited 27 sensors placed at roads around metro Atlanta and North Georgia that indicate pavement temperature, the air temperature above the road surface and whether it is raining, snowing or sleeting.

“That’s a huge help and a lot of visibility we haven’t had previously,” Butterworth said.

Locally, one addition to the Georgia Department of Transportation’s weather weaponry is a “salt barn” off Interstate 985 between Oakwood and Flowery Branch.

The state decided to put up salt barns — basically depots for trucks carrying ice-fighting materials — across the state as part of a response to the 2013-14 winter.

The I-985 project was completed this year.

Last winter, the DOT also acquired two new “tow plows,” which are able to clear two lanes at a time, for this area. And the district more than doubled its stockpile of materials, including 12,000 tons of salt and 12,000 tons of gravel, in storage tanks at three different locations.

Pope said DOT officials are planning for winter, but she wouldn’t have more details until a media briefing planned by the agency in mid-November.

David Kimbrell, Hall County Emergency Management Agency director, said area officials have done preliminary preparations but will hold additional meetings “to gauge our readiness.”

Helping to fuel interest in winter preparations is the forecast that a strong El Niño climate pattern will result in cooler, wetter weather in December, January and February.

However, “it’s still too early to pinpoint whether we’re going to get a snowy winter,” state climatologist Bill Murphey said. “Not every El Niño year has heavy amounts of snowfall.”

Still, if this winter resembles the last one, emergency workers could have their hands full.

Chad Black, Hall County deputy fire chief, recalled firefighters at one point last year having to cut trees out of a roadway to get to a house fire.

“I hope it’s not as bad as what they’re saying,” he said. “But one thing you can’t control is Mother Nature. You just try to do the best you can to adapt and then deal with the elements that present themselves.”