Middle Georgia braces for ‘nasty wintry mix’

jkovac@macon.comJanuary 27, 2014 

As locals braced for a Tuesday jolt of what forecasters dubbed “a nasty wintry mix,” schools closed and officials warned of potentially treacherous roads and power outages.

In a region that sees the white stuff maybe two or three times a decade, the threat alone of a snow dusting can spark frenzied runs on firewood and supermarkets.

But as of late Monday, a looming winter storm packing polar air appeared to be whipping up more than a dash of flurries. Moisture plodding in from the Gulf of Mexico was expected to mingle with the arctic blast throughout the day Tuesday and blanket parts of the midstate in about 3 inches of sleet and snow.

Skies won’t likely clear until sometime Wednesday.

While the promise of snow-coated yards and snowball fights tends to bring out the kid in a lot of folks, it can also unnerve worrywarts.

“There’s no need to panic,” Macon-Bibb County Emergency Management Director Don Druitt said Monday afternoon. “There’s no need to run to the supermarket and buy everything. I mean, it’s about a one-and-a-half-day event.”

Druitt urged locals to avoid driving if roads are dangerous and to use common sense. Area public works crews were standing by to clear roads if needed.

“We’re ready,” Druitt said.

‘Significant’ travel woes

Frigid air plunging into the region behind a cold front was expected to chill most of the state, setting the table for rounds of freezing rain, sleet and then snow.

The weather service, in one of its forecast discussions Monday, noted “a nasty wintry mix,” which was expected to begin sliding across parts Georgia by midday Tuesday as temperatures dip below freezing.

“This is for pretty much all kinds of winter precipitation that you can possibly imagine,” Peachtree City-based weather service meteorologist Ryan Willis said at a Monday briefing for emergency officials statewide.

He warned of “pretty significant” travel problems for much of the region on into Wednesday.

A hunk of Georgia roughly south of Interstate 85 was expected to see at least some form of frozen precipitation.

A fraction under 3 inches of snow and sleet were forecast for Macon, with sleet or frozen rain totals of at least an inch all along the I-75 and I-16 corridors to the south and east.

“There are uncertainties still with the forecast,” Willis said. “We’re looking at all kinds of (forecast) model data.”

That said, he added that chances are there will be “a pretty decent snow falling” on much of Middle Georgia’s northern reaches by Tuesday evening.

“How much sleet we get with the snow, that will determine just how much accumulation,” Willis said.

Tuesday’s high temperatures -- in the mid-30s -- were expected in the early morning, with lows in the middle 20s by midnight. Wednesday-night lows in lower 20s could cause spotty problems on roads as wet spots refreeze.

As night fell Monday, temperatures were still in the mid-50s around Macon. But ice-cold air was charging this way.

“You guys are set up in probably the best area for the heaviest accumulation,” weather service meteorologist Alex Gibbs said. “With all this cold weather, it’s about time we got some snow.”

Gibbs said the cold arctic surge crossing paths with the Gulf-wrought moisture was a rare and perfect setup for Southern snowfall.

“In the past, we’ve been having the (moisture) systems move through and then the cold air behind it,” he said. “Well this time we have the cold air moving in place right as the system’s moving up.”

‘It’s nice to see’

As Houston County officials hunkered down for the storm, they were on the lookout for just about anything frozen to blow their way.

“It could be freezing rain for a few minutes, it could be rain for a few minutes, it could be sleet for a few minutes, you could see a little bit of snow,” said Kevin Noles, Houston’s EMA deputy director and assistant fire chief.

About 2.5 inches of frozen precipitation was expected there, he said.

“It’s nice to see if you want to get out and walk. But I would stay off the roads,” Noles said.

Supplies of road salt and tractors were in place in key areas across the county Monday to help keep major intersections open and bridges clear, Noles said. The county doesn’t have snow plows.

Also, full-time and volunteer firefighters were being scheduled to work on a rotating basis.

3-plus inches may blanket Monroe

Macon-Bibb County government offices were set to close at 3 p.m. Tuesday and remain closed Wednesday, said Chris Floore, Macon-Bibb’s public affairs director.

That means the Macon-Bibb commission meeting, scheduled for Tuesday evening, is canceled.

Crews with the Roads Division of the Public Works Department should report to work as scheduled, Floore said.

By noon Monday, salt loaders had been attached to Macon-Bibb trucks, but the decision on whether to actually fill them with salt won’t be made until early Tuesday, when road conditions can be gauged more accurately, Floore said.

Crews from Public Works will be available to spread salt on bridges and busier intersections as snow accumulates.

In Monroe County, where 3.1 inches of snow were forecast, Emergency Management Director Matt Perry said backhoes, generators and chain saws were at the ready.

Monroe County Hospital has scheduled extra staffers to work during the storm. An additional ambulance will be available. Extra patrol deputies also are scheduled to work, Perry said.

The county hopes to staff volunteer fire stations. Salt and sand were on hand in case ice forms on bridges, he said.

“We are taking this very seriously,” Perry said.

‘Ready and waiting’

Middle Georgia power companies have put their employees on standby to work extra hours in the event of outages.

The big concern is ice on power lines or ice snapping tree limbs.

“We’re ready and waiting to see what Mother Nature has in store for us,” said Flint Energies spokeswoman Marian McLemore.

Flint serves more than 55,000 customers in Houston County.

McLemore said contract crews are on standby to help in the worst-hit areas.

Jeffrey Underwood of Ocmulgee Electric Membership Corp., which serves more than 6,000 members in Bleckley and Dodge counties, said, “We always tell people to stay away from downed power lines.”

Meanwhile, as reports of the coming storm led the news Monday night, milk and bread flew off store shelves.

John Ciesielski, a manager for the Kroger on Hartley Bridge Road, kept every checkout open.

Despite the waves of customers, Ciesielski was grinning and optimistic.

Along the dairy aisle, Tonya Davis, a Macon mother shopping with her three teenagers, found milk coolers barren. In the bread aisle, only a couple-dozen loaves remained.

“I’m kind of disappointed,” Davis said.

Ciesielski said the store had planned ahead and that more milk and bread were on the way. He said the store will stay open even if the weather gets rough.

“It’s been a very long day,” Ciesielski said.

Shopper Joe Allen, a former Bibb County Commissioner, bought laundry detergent, coffee and cereal.

“People are going crazy,” Allen said. “I would have been here anyway.”

Outside, Dave Marshall of Macon was loading 10 bags of firewood into his trunk.

His girlfriend was visiting from Columbus.

She’d asked him to keep their fireplace going.

“Now’s not a good time to not have enough firewood,” Marshall said.

‘A little bit frustrating’

Brooke Weatherford Kinross, a mother of two who owns her own skin-care business in Macon, said Monday that having schools and day cares close is a major inconvenience.

Earlier this winter, Bibb schools closed in anticipation of icy conditions, only to have little to no precipitation. For Weatherford Kinross, that meant having to cancel appointments both as a business owner and as someone going to another business.

“It’s been a little bit frustrating this year,” she said. “We haven’t had snow, but we’ve had snow days. I’ve had to cancel business appointments, physical therapy and a hair appointment. Then the kids are upset when it doesn’t snow.”

She said she preferred the way things were when she was growing up, when parents would find out that morning if there was school or not, because at that point, the school system would know if there was snow and ice, rather than trying to guess.

She acknowledged, though, that the school system letting people know a day ahead of time does give parents the chance to try to make arrangements for their children.

However, “it’s always inconvenient regardless of how much warning we get,” she said.

Dana Conner, a Warner Robins mother of two children, said she is lucky because she already was scheduled to be off work Tuesday. Conner has a 5-year-old at C.B. Watson Primary School and a 13-year-old at Huntington Middle School. Houston County schools are closed Tuesday.

Conner applauded the school district’s decision to close schools as severe weather is predicted.

“I think it’s the safe thing to do,” she said.

Staff writers Andres David Lopez, Amy Leigh Womack, Phillip Ramati, Mike Stucka and Becky Purser contributed to this story.

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