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Georgians ready to thaw out

State officials urge caution and no discretionary travel before midday in impacted counties

A snow plow knocks snow off the an Atlanta expressway during the ice storm in Atlanta on Wednesday. The area was expected to start thawing out today. (Reuters)

A snow plow knocks snow off the an Atlanta expressway during the ice storm in Atlanta on Wednesday. The area was expected to start thawing out today. (Reuters)

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Georgia State Patrol troopers escort work trucks to the Augusta area on Thursday. (Special photo)

ATLANTA — With a warm-up coming to most of the state, the the winter storm that closed traffic arteries, businesses, schools and offices in central and north Georgia for much of the week is on its way up the coast.

Now, the cleanup and recovery begins and the state thaws out.

On Thursday, state officials had begun focusing on the Augusta area, which sustained the worst ice buildups Wednesday night. Gov. Nathan Deal, at a news conference Thursday, said state officials didn’t expect any more frozen precipitation, but added that didn’t mean there were no hurdles yet to be overcome.

Daytime temperatures were expected to reach into the 50s today and this weekend in the metro Atlanta area as a rain system works through this weekend that is expected to only bring some rain. Areas in the upper elevations in North Georgia were expecting more snow from that system, though not as much as this week. Snow totals were as high as 7 inches in the northern part of the state and ice was as thick as an inch in the Augusta area.

“We have extended the declaration of emergency through Sunday evening,” Deal said. “We do not anticipate any new bad weather.”

By noon Thursday, the ice situation in Augusta was “the most significant effects we’re seeing,” said Deal, who later in the afternoon made an aerial inspection of the Augusta area via helicopter with city and county officials from Augusta. Late Thursday afternoon, Deal announced that state government offices would reopen at 10 a.m. today in the affected areas, though agency heads have the discretion to close individual offices or allow telework if circumstances warrant.

Emergency crews are facing two major problems in the aftermath of what is proving to be a historic weather event — clearing debris and returning power to customers. Ice forming on limbs caused them to the snap and damage power lines, cutting power to residences and businesses, an debris has blocked roadways.

Deal said Thursday that power was interrupted for 513,000 Georgia Power customers and 145,000 Oglethorpe Power customers during the event. By late Thursday afternoon, Georgia Power had 2,620 outages affecting 170,512 customers.

“Georgia Power has a significant work force … and they have somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 employees working with their crews, primarily in the Augusta area,” Deal said, adding Oglethorpe Power had 220 line crews from seven states at work.

Deal said Georgia Emergency Management Agency had 200 “strike teams” of one to eight members each, armed with chain saws, en route to the Augusta area.

Motorists were urged not to take to roads in the affected area until noon today. Temperatures were projected to dip below freezing before dawn this morning, which would result in moisture on the roadways turning to ice and “black ice,” which is nearly impossible for drivers to detect.

As of Thursday, the state’s roadways had been relatively safe, considering the conditions. Georgia’s Department of Public Safety reported 305 crashes involving 36 injuries, but no fatalities. “We have had success as far as avoiding any kind of fatalities,” Deal said.

That was largely because residents heeded officials’ warnings to not travel unless it was an emergency. The low volume of traffic allowed workers to treat the Interstate Highways and other major roadways in a way that was not possible last month when heavy traffic resulted in stranded motorists, some for up to 20 hours.

Deal and other leaders were criticized for failing to anticipate the potential of the late January storm. State officials moved faster this time, with Deal, 36 hours before the storm hit, declaring a state of emergency that expanded to 91 of the state’s 159 counties. Asked whether he would take that type of action again, Deal said it would depend on circumstances.

“You can’t make a blanket judgment about that,” he said. “It worked out well this time,” adding that officials “may not have the luxury” of having as much time to ramp up when the next disaster strikes the state.

Georgia Department of Transportation officials were asking motorists in the affected to wait until midday today before venturing out in non-emergency travel.

The good judgment shown by Georgians and by truckers who stayed off the state’s highways during the storm went a long away toward mitigating the event, Deal observed.

Deal said it was proof that government officials should “learn to trust the people” to do the right thing when faced with a weather disaster.

“We had the cooperation of the public,” He said. “… Thank you for what you’ve done, but remain cautious.

“We think the human responsibility over the last couple of days has been remarkable.”