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Commuters say northern counties better prepared

POSTED: February 5, 2014 4:00 a.m.

David Yenerall expected his commute from Georgia Perimeter College in Dunwoody to Dawsonville to last a bit longer than usual Jan. 28.

But the astronomy professor never could have imagined the 45-minute trek would not end until nearly 14 hours later.

"We were just unprepared for this on so many levels," he said. "I actually saw someone walking down the highway in a pair of surgical scrubs."

The winter storm brought nearly 3 inches of snow that quickly turned to ice and crippled traffic on the highways in metro Atlanta as a mass exodus of motorists attempted to get home.

"The problem wasn't that there were too many people at once, or that everyone was released at the same time. The problem was simply at the top of Holcomb Bridge Road on 400 that tractor trailers could not get up," Yenerall said.

"Then there were signs that said all lanes closed and there's nowhere to get off highway, so you just had to sit there."

Morgan Hall of Dawson County also commutes daily to and from Dunwoody and had a similar experience when finally merging on to Ga. 400 after sitting on side roads in traffic for several hours.

"People just probably don't really understand just how slow you had to go in the ice. They were punching the gas, spinning ice all over everybody. It was rough," he said.

"Then they'd get frustrated, thinking, I guess, they could make a little more progress if they got on the emergency shoulder, and that filled up so fast and the police couldn't get through."

Eventually, Hall was able to maneuver his front-wheel drive Kia Soul past the "parking lot of cars on a pure sheet of ice" in Forsyth County, where he said the roads had been scraped and adequately salted.

"From there, it took about 20 more minutes to get to Dawsonville," he said.

Yenerall said the roads in the northern counties along Ga. 400 were "most definitely" better prepared for the winter weather than those to the south.

"Once I got to Forsyth County, everything was clear. It was salted. I could drive well. I was typically the only person on the road," he said.

"In Dawson County, the roads were well salted. There was no problem driving here at all. There was salt on the roads all the way to my driveway."

That was not the case in many parts of the Atlanta area, where students were stuck on school buses or stranded at school overnight. Some motorists slept in their cars or at area businesses that offered shelter.

The state's delayed response to the winter weather has drawn heavy scrutiny, forcing top level officials to concede the state was ill-prepared for such an emergency.

On Monday, Gov. Nathan Deal called for statewide reform in regards to communicating emergency notifications during winter weather.

"Effective immediately, a storm warning will trigger a message to cell phones in targeted areas, as in the Amber Alert system, and advise against road travel," Deal said. "We will go one step further with school superintendents by emailing them weather condition updates, so that they have the most up-to-date information when determining whether to close schools."

In addition, Deal said there would be an overhaul of the state's online emergency app that identifies shelter information, alternative transportation routes and other emergency-related information.

"Lastly, as storms approach, I have ordered Georgia Emergency Management Agency to consult with local meteorologists on current weather modeling and predictions," he said.

Some meteorologists, along with public safety personnel, school officials and state lawmakers, make up the governor's 30-member task force called to help implement the reforms and suggest short-term and long-term solutions.

District 51 state Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, who represents Dawson County, is among the appointees.

After spending Tuesday and much of Wednesday with Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville, helping folks stranded on roads in Atlanta, Gooch said it will be important to have talks on what worked, what didn't and how improvements can be made "so that it doesn't happen again."

"I think we're going to try to solicit input from the business community, from the private sector and from other agencies to try to determine how we coordinate all of our resources to respond quicker and more efficiently and more timely," he said.

"Every time the weather forecasts snow, we can't shut down the state of Georgia. But you've got to be ready for when it does turn to the worse."

 

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