Midstate officials prepare as weather service issues ice storm warning

Telegraph staffFebruary 10, 2014 

With a major winter storm bearing down on Georgia, officials across the midstate made preparations Tuesday.

Macon-Bibb County officials decided to close government offices all day Wednesday as Middle Georgia prepares for up to one-third of an inch of ice. Many schools systems -- Bibb, Jones, Putnam and Twiggs, to name a few -- followed suit while Houston County decided to operate on a normal schedule.

Officials from Macon-Bibb, schools and various emergency-service agencies gathered in the county’s Emergency Management Agency bunker to hear an 11 a.m. briefing from the National Weather Service in Peachtree City. A similar session was held in Houston County. Another briefing was planned for 8:30 p.m.

Forecast maps looked similar to mid-January’s, with a band of storms reaching across the South.

Houston County EMA Director Jimmy Williams said forecasts from public and private organizations seemed to agree the area wouldn’t freeze until Wednesday afternoon through Thursday.

“Everything’s going consistently around that idea,” Williams said.

Describing it as “one long weather event,” a weather forecaster said during the morning briefing that snow already was accumulating in north Georgia, and that precipitation and freezing temperatures are expected through much of the state until midday Thursday.

Late Tuesday afternoon, the National Weather Service replaced its winter storm warning for the midstate with an ice storm warning, meaning the potential for ice accumulations went up, said meteorologist Brian Lynn.

The weather service predicts one-tenth to a quarter inch of ice accumulation for Macon and Warner Robins, according to an updated advisory released just before 4 a.m. Wednesday. Communities further north could see as much as three-quarters to an inch of ice.

“If you get a tenth of an inch of ice on any roadway, it’s going to be hard to travel,” Lynn said. And one-quarter of an inch or more has the potential for downed trees, he said.

The ice storm warning began at 7 p.m. Tuesday and is in effect until 1 p.m. Thursday.

Sleet and freezing rain is forecast to begin Wednesday morning and will shift to snow by late Wednesday night, according to the updated forecast.

Earlier Tuesday, Gov. Nathan Deal added much of Middle Georgia to counties in a state of emergency because of the storm. Counties included are Baldwin, Bibb, Bleckley, Crawford, Hancock, Houston, Jones, Laurens, Monroe, Peach, Pike, Putnam, Twiggs and Wilkinson. More than half the state -- 88 counties -- is under Georgia’s state of emergency.

President Barack Obama also declared an emergency in Georgia and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local response efforts to the impending storm.

Though temperatures will slowly drop into the 30s overnight, Middle Georgia probably won’t hit the freezing mark until early Wednesday afternoon, a weather forecaster told Bibb officials gathered at the EMA bunker Tuesday.

“But we’ll see; these temperatures are tricky,” he said.

Precipitation -- whether rain or sleet -- should end Thursday morning, but melting likely won’t start until Thursday afternoon, the forecaster said.

Bibb County EMA Director Don Druitt gave a little perspective: The ice on a skating rink is about three-fourths of an inch thick, and the Macon area is expected to get one-tenth to one-third of an inch of ice.

Winds should hit their maximum on Wednesday morning, at 15 to 20 mph for sustained winds and gusts up to 25 or 30 mph, putting trees and power lines at risk, the forecaster said. After a similar event in January 2000, it took days to restore power to about 350,000 people, he said.

A Twiggs County official asked for a recommendation on school closings.

“You might get the kids to school Wednesday morning, but you won’t get them home,” the forecaster replied. “I wouldn’t gamble on it.”

The reverse likely will be true Thursday, with ice in the morning and an afternoon thaw, he said.

Roads officials were preparing for the potentially hazardous road conditions.

Houston County public works officials indicated they were ready to treat roads and bridges.

Macon-Bibb Public Works Director Richard Powell said salt and sand spreaders were ready to go, but probably wouldn’t start their runs until 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. Wednesday, shortly before freezing temperatures are expected to arrive.

While icy roads are always a worry, a coating as thick as what’s expected will likely bring another danger, Powell said: falling tree limbs. Public Works crews will be prepared to deal with ice-covered limbs coming down on streets and sidewalks, he said.

To report road dangers, fallen limbs or broken power lines in Macon, call 478-832-6300.

The Macon-Bibb government will operate a “warming center” for the homeless, opening at 4 p.m. Wednesday and aiding the Salvation Army, Druitt said.

“They anticipate an overflow, so we’re going to support that operation,” he said. People in need should go to the Salvation Army, from which shuttle vans will take them to the warming center if the Salvation Army shelter fills up, Druitt said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489. To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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