By CHRISTINA A. CASSIDY
ATLANTA (AP) — Forecasters issued an unusually dire winter storm warning Tuesday for much of Georgia, but many residents already were heeding advice to stay home and off the roads, leaving much of metro Atlanta a ghost town during the usually busy morning commute.
The storm could be a “catastrophic event” reaching “historical proportions,” the National Weather Service said in its warnings. Forecasters cited potentially crippling snow and ice accumulations, and they expected widespread power outages that could last for days. As much as three-quarters of an inch of ice is forecast for Atlanta, and wind gusts up to 25 mph could exacerbate problems.
Aaron Strickland, emergency operations director for Georgia Power, said the utility is already bringing in crews from Florida, Texas, Oklahoma and Michigan. Strickland, who has spent 35 years with Georgia Power, said he’s never seen an inch of ice in metro Atlanta.
“I’ve seen people forecast it, but it’s never come,” Strickland said. “And I’m hoping it don’t this time.”
Rain was falling Tuesday morning in Atlanta, with snow in north Georgia. Dustin Wilkes, 36, of Atlanta, was one of the few who headed to the office. “It looks like this time it’s not going to be bad until everyone’s home,” he said. He noticed his parking lot was mostly deserted.
It was a stark contrast to the storm that hit Atlanta two weeks earlier. Downtown streets were jammed with unmoving cars, highway motorists slept overnight in vehicles or abandoned them where they sat, and students were forced to camp in school gymnasiums.
Atlanta has a painful history of being ill-equipped to deal with snowy weather. Despite officials’ promises after a crippling ice storm in 2011, the Jan. 28 storm proved they still had many kinks to work out.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal indicated Monday that he and other state officials had learned their lesson. Before a drop of freezing rain or snow fell, Deal declared a state of emergency for nearly a third of the state and state employees were told they could stay home. He expanded the declaration Tuesday to more than half the state’s counties.
On Monday, schools canceled classes, and Deal urged people who didn’t need to be anywhere to stay off the roads. Tractor-trailer drivers were handed fliers about the weather and a law requiring chains on tires in certain conditions.
“We are certainly ahead of the game this time, and that’s important,” Deal said. “We are trying to be ready, prepared and react as quickly as possible.”
Some residents thought officials moved too quickly. “I think they probably overreacted,” Wilkes said. “It’s to be expected.”
But for others, memories of the last storm are still painfully fresh. Students were trapped on buses or at schools and thousands of cars were abandoned along highways as short commutes turned into odysseys. One woman gave birth on a jammed interstate. Officials reported one accident-related death.
Tony Hardy said he was trying to get out of the incoming weather. He lives at a homeless shelter and said he fell three times on ice during the last storm. This time, he said planned to shelter in his sister’s house.
“It’s going to last for a couple of days,” he said.
The storm was expected to hit other parts of the South as well. Alabama, which saw stranded vehicles and 10,000 students spend the night in schools during the January storm, was likely to get a wintry mix, with as much as 3 inches of snow and ice forecast before lunchtime Tuesday. Parts of Mississippi also could see 3 inches of snow, and a blast of snow over a wide section of Kentucky slickened roads and closed several school districts. South Carolina, which hasn’t seen a major ice storm in nearly a decade, could get a quarter to three-quarters of an inch of ice and as much as 8 inches of snow in some areas. Nearly 900 flights were canceled Tuesday at airports in Atlanta, Dallas and Charlotte, N.C., according to tracking service FlightAware.
On Monday, Deal was doing many things differently than he had last month. He opened an emergency operations center and held two news conferences before the storm. In January, Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed did not hold their first news conference until hours after highways were jammed.
When the Jan. 28 storm hit, Deal was at an awards luncheon with Reed, who was named a magazine’s 2014 “Georgian of the Year.”
Reed had just tweeted: “Atlanta, we are ready for the snow.”
This time, the mayor made no such predictions. Instead, he said he was in contact with school leaders and the city had 120 pieces of equipment to spread salt and sand and plow snow. The National Guard had 1,400 four-wheeled drive vehicles to help anyone stranded.
“We are just going to get out here and, flat out, let our work speak for itself,” Reed said.
Some residents are already taking note of officials’ change in attitude for this storm. Kevin Paul, a barber, sat in an empty shop watching TV coverage of the storm Tuesday. Paul was critical of the response from Deal last month.
“I think that they should have done better,” Paul said. “I think they were preoccupied with other things.” But Paul noted Deal seems to be paying far more attention this time.
Associated Press writers Kate Brumback, Ray Henry and Jeff Martin contributed to this report.