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Georgia Department of Transportation readies crews to handle winter storm

Numerous government offices, schools and organization close today

Georgia Department of Transportation employee Clarence Brown attaches a snow plow to a tandem dump truck in preparation for clearing roads of ice and snow expected in south Georgia this week. (Special photo)

Georgia Department of Transportation employee Clarence Brown attaches a snow plow to a tandem dump truck in preparation for clearing roads of ice and snow expected in south Georgia this week. (Special photo)

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Georgia Department of Transportation crews load dump truck trucks with a salt and rock mixture designed to break up ice on roads and give better traction to drivers. The salt and rock mixture is being spread on roads most susceptible to freezing due to rain and sleet expected in south Georgia this week. (Special photo)

ALBANY —As a severe winter storm drops freezing rain and sleet on Albany and the surrounding area, local residents, businesses, county and city offices and schools have been preparing for the worst.

The National Weather Service Tuesday issued a winter storm warning for south Georgia calling for sleet, freezing rain and possible snow. The warning was to be in effect until this afternoon.

The warning comes as part of a series of warnings issued throughout the southern part of the country, as the storm is expected to stretch from Texas to the Carolinas.

“The storm is pretty much blanketing the whole Deep South,” said Jeanie McDermott, a forecaster with the National Weather Service office in Tallahassee. “A storm of this magnitude is pretty rare.”

In response to the inclement weather, the city of Albany, Dougherty County and Lee County shutdown non-essential government offices today. All three will monitor the weather situation throughout the day before making a decision about Thursday operations. Marines Corps Logistics Base-Albany officials will take that same approach with some services on the base that are to be closed today, including the Development Center, Exchange, Commissary and Naval Branch Health Clinc.

In addition, area schools, including those in Dougherty, Lee, Worth, Terrell, Mitchell, Baker and Sumter counties, have closed for the day. Worth County, which has one of the highest number of miles of dirt roads in the state, is keeping their school doors closed Thursday as well.

On Tuesday, Albany Police Chief John Proctor issued a statement asking motorists to stay off roadways if possible during freezing weather. Those without auto transportation in Albany will have a challenge for transportation since city buses won’t be running today.

Anyone who wants to brave the frigid weather, however, can visit the park area at Chehaw. The zoo portion of Chehaw is closed today.

According to McDermott, today’s high is only expected to reach 34 degrees with a wind chill factor of 19 degrees. That means much of the ice that accumulated overnight will be slow to thaw today.

Tonight, the Weather Service expects the low to plummet to 20 degrees before warming up to around 50 degrees Thursday.

“It’s not going to be pretty, but it shouldn’t stay cold for too long,” said McDermott. “People need to use caution and remember that bridges and overpasses will freeze before anything else, making travel very difficult.”

Hoping to limit the impact of the weather, the Georgia Department of Transportation had road crews prepared and ready to keep roads passable as the storm covered southern Georgia. The GDOT office in Tifton, which serves as the hub of GOT District 4, readied dump trucks with snow plows and a salt and rock mixture to help keep roads clear in the wake of the storm.

“The DOT will be monitoring the roadway conditions, along with local law enforcement,” District Engineer Joe Sheffield said Monday. “Resources will be utilized as needed to make roads passable.”

Those resources include 12 dump trucks equipped with snow plows and filled with a salt and rock mixture that can be spread on roads to break up ice and improve the traction of vehicles. Additionally the district office has three salt spreaders working to keep roads clear.

DOT maintenance crews began attaching snow plows to trucks and filling them with the salt and rock mixture Monday in preparation for the conditions.

District 4 consists of 32 counties in southern Georgia, including Dougherty, Lee, Mitchell, Worth, Baker and Tift counties — areas that were to have been affected by the storm today.

According to Juanita Birmingham, communications officer for the district, the DOT office had workers ready to take to the roads as soon as reports of ice came into the districts Emergency Operations Center, which was activated late Tuesday.

“We have 331 maintenance employees in District 4,” Birmingham said. “We would rather go ahead and be ready than get hit with the bad weather unexpectedly.”

Birmingham added that the plan was to have eight of the trucks dedicated to maintenance of the parts of Interstate 75 that run through the district, while the other four were expected to be used in the northernmost counties of the district which have historically had greater concentrations of ice during winter storms.

Overall, the DOT is planning to concentrate primarily on the Interstate and state routes, from the most heavily trafficked to the least traveled.

While the 12 vehicles mentioned operate out of the Tifton office, the district also has seven area offices that have access to those vehicles. Birmingham said some of the area locations have additional equipment to be used in those areas.

The department advised the public to refrain from all but such absolutely necessary travel until midday today at the earliest, and said those who had to travel should be be patient with conditions and other drivers, and extremely cautious.

Other DOT tips include asking drivers slow down to have their normal speed, treat traffic signals that aren’t working as a four way stop, beware of black ice and fallen trees and power lines and be mindful of DOT vehicles working on the roads. Should drivers encounter DOT crews they should not pass them and should remain a minimum of 100 feet behind them.

Dangerous driving conditions hit Tuesday afternoon throughout most of north and central Georgia, DOT officials said. Crews were active in the initially affected areas, but DOT officials urged motorists to stay off roads and highways that would only become more dangerous after nightfall, especially with the formation of “black ice,” which is dangerous and nearly impossible to see.

“We are doing all we can to maintain mobility on literally hundreds of highways,” DOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale said. “That effort is complicated in some areas by the heavy traffic of individuals trying to get home and the very large number of roadways experiencing issues. As people get home from work, we ask them to stay there and not drive again unless necessitated by an emergency.”

The only roads officially closed by early Tuesday evening were State Route 180 Spur in Towns County and a portion of State Route 348 in White County, DOT officials said.