ATLANTA (AP) — Emergency management workers hunkered down in Atlanta waiting to spring into action as rain — and temperatures — fell overnight, potentially leading to “catastrophic” ice conditions that forecasters said could hit the region.
Already, Georgia Power was reporting more than 2,000 power outages early Wednesday throughout the state. Forecasters and officials said that number would probably grow throughout the day. In north Georgia, morning snow was falling. Other areas of the South, from Louisiana to South Carolina, and the Mid-Atlantic also were expected to get socked with a wintry mix of ice, snow and freezing rain.
Atlanta and the surrounding region dodged the first punch of a dangerous winter storm Tuesday, but forecasters warned that the second punch would likely bring a thick layer of ice and heavy winds that could knock out power to thousands and leave people stranded in their cold, dark homes for days. National Weather Service forecasters said in a memo early Tuesday that while a foot of snow could fall in some parts of the northeast Georgia mountains, “it is the ice that will have the catastrophic impacts.”
Elected leaders and emergency management officials began warning people to stay off the roads, especially after two inches of snowfall caused an icy gridlock two weeks ago and left thousands stranded in vehicles overnight. It seemed many in the region around the state’s capital obliged as streets and highways were uncharacteristically unclogged Tuesday.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed in a news conference at the Georgia Emergency Management Agency’s special operations center Tuesday evening implored people to get somewhere safe and stay there.
“The message I really want to share is, as of midnight tonight, wherever you are, you need to plan on staying there for a while,” Reed said. “The bottom line is that all of the information that we have right now suggests that we are facing an icing event that is very unusual for the metropolitan region and the state of Georgia.”
The forecast drew comparisons to an ice storm in the Atlanta area in 2000 that left more than 500,000 homes and businesses without power and an epic storm in 1973 that caused an estimated 200,000 outages for several days. In 2000, damage estimates topped $35 million.
Eli Jacks, a meteorologist with National Weather Service, said forecasters use words such as “catastrophic” sparingly.
“Sometimes we want to tell them, ‘Hey, listen, this warning is different. This is really extremely dangerous, and it doesn’t happen very often,’” Jacks said.
“I think three-quarters of an inch of ice anywhere would be catastrophic,” Jacks added.
But the Atlanta area and other parts of the South are particularly vulnerable: Many trees and limbs hang over power lines. When ice builds up on them, limbs snap and fall, knocking out power.
“There is no doubt that this is one of Mother Nature’s worst kinds of storms that can be inflicted on the South, and that is ice. It is our biggest enemy,” Gov. Deal said.
More than 200 utility vehicles from Florida, North Carolina and other Southern states gathered in a parking lot near one of the grandstands at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The state had more than 22,000 tons of salt, 70,000 gallons of brine 45,000 tons of gravel and brought in 180 tons of additional salt and sand. The goal was to make sure at least two interstate lanes were available in each direction. Then material would be used on the most heavily used roads off the highways. Officials also were considering re-routing traffic in extreme circumstances.
“It’s certainly going to be a challenge for us. Ice is definitely different than snow,” state Transportation Commissioner Keith Golden said.