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Icy storm has minimal impact on Southwest Georgia (Photo Galleries)

Contuning frigid temperatures may still cause transportation, utility problems

Two girls on 8th Avenue gather snow for snowballs. (Staff Photo: Terry Lewis)

Two girls on 8th Avenue gather snow for snowballs. (Staff Photo: Terry Lewis)

ALBANY — What was billed as potentially the most damaging winter storm in the past few of years has passed, so far, with little impact on Southwest Georgia outside of a few ice-related fender benders and a lot of working adults and school children enjoying a mid-week holiday.

THURSDAY CLOSINGS

These school systems will be closed Thursday:

Colquitt County

Dougherty County

Lee County

Pataula Charter

Worth County

Southwest Georgians awoke Wednesday morning with a light sprinkling of snow on their lawns and vehicles from Storm Leon, but with power and the ability to travel as needed. Officially, the National Weather Service reported a quarter inch of precipitation, 0.17 inches undetermined as to rain, sleet or snow, and .01 inch certain to be snow.

“We did not have the first outage,” said Lorie Farkas, spokesperson with Albany’s Water, Gas & Light Commission. “We were here and ready, but there was nothing.” Utility crews had been worried about ice-covered limbs breaking and damaging power lines.

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A light dusting on the railroad tracks along Roosevelt Avenue. (Staff Photo: Terry Lewis)

Albany police reported numerous minor traffic accidents throughout the city, with 17 wrecks reported in a relatively short time period on the Liberty Expressway near the Blaylock exit Wednesday morning. Overall, there were 20 accidents Tuesday morning, four with minor injuries.

“We sent out eight medical units to assist and the westbound (traffic) lane of the Liberty Expressway was closed for a brief period, but so far I haven’t heard of anything major, said Jim Vaught, Emergency Management Agency deputy director in Dougherty County.

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Snow on the live oaks that line 8th Avenue. (Staff Photo: Terry Lewis)

The damage was likely limited by public works employees throughout the area working alongside Georgia Department of Transportation crews to place sand, salt and rocks on area bridges.

“We started sprinkling sand on the bridges in the Smithville and the Chokee area about 9 Tuesday night until about 4 a.m., and we had snow and ice then,” said Mike Sistrunk, public works director in Lee County. “We then basically hit spots on Highway 82 and 19 and other places as needed. We had ice coming over the road in some spots.”

“It was a team effort,” Sistrunk added. “We maintain 16 bridges in Lee County. We had help from the Sheriff’s Department running ahead of us to check the roads and us following to keep sand on them. Plus it was a team effort with the GDOT. They were a little overwhelmed with all the bridges having ice of them so we were helping each other out.”

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Car hoods seemed to attract most of the light snow that dusted Albany early Wednesday morning. (Staff Photo: Terry Lewis)

“A special thanks goes out to the sheriff, 911, public works and our public safety department in protecting our safety and for keeping services flowing smoothly,” said Lee County Manager Ron Rabun Wednesday afternoon after he announced that county offices would reopen at normal times today.

Vaught agreed that public works employees were the unsung heroes of the evening.

“Our public works crews have done an excellent job, and the state Department of Transportation crews helped us salt down bridges to lessen the chance of dangerous driving conditions.

Georgia Department of Transportation crews in Southwest Georgia responded to 30 incidents of ice on bridges and seven reports of ice on the roadway just between the hours of 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. Wednesday.

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Albany’s Ray Charles Plaza got a dusting of snow when winter storm Leon descended upon the city Tuesday evening. (Staff photo: Jim Hendricks)

“Reports of ice on bridges in the area began coming in at approximately 1:30 a.m. Wednesday and steadily increased, but no bridges had to be closed,” said Nita Birmingham of the Georgia Department of Transportation district office in Tifton.

Jerry McDonald with the Worth County Emergency Management unit said Worth County escaped any major damage.

“It was absolutely quiet for us last night,” McDonald said. “We had no calls and we have nothing to report. We were fortunate.”

Mitchell EMC, which serves a large portion of the area, said power remained on for most of its customers.

“Things worked out very well for us and our members,” said Sunny Cochran, member relations coordinator. “We only had two small outages and neither were weather-related. A squirrel chewed through a line and we had a limb fall on another line. Most of the calls we got overnight were from employees asking what they could do.

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Chehaw’s llamas and goats carried on business as usual during Wednesday’s cold weather snap. (Staff photo: Laura Williams)

“We were very prepared and we were also fortunate that most of the worst weather stayed north of us.”

Cochran was accurate. North Georgia, particularly metro Atlanta, did not fare so well.

Gridlock in metro Atlanta, with everyone trying to get home before the worst of the weather arrived, resulted in hundreds of examples of motorists taking five or six hours to navigate short journey that typically take 30 to 45 minutes. There were reports of some motorists spending the night on the expressways and of school children and teachers having to spend the night in schools because their buses could not successfully travel on even minor hills because of the ice.

At least one mother stuck in Atlanta’s traffic gridlock gave birth Tuesday evening. The mother and baby were doing fine Wednesday, according to media reports. The father was assisted in the baby’s delivery by a police officer.

There was at one weather-related traffic fatality and about 2,000 accidents. Work crews were hindered Wednesday by abandoned cars left by motorists who decided to walk to warm temporary shelter for the night.

Vaught said the danger was not over for motorists in Southwest Georgia. Even colder temperatures were expected early today with area residents waking up to temperatures around 23 degrees.

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Additional lamps and heaters help keep Chehaw’s flamingos warm on cold days at the zoo. (Staff photo: Laura Williams)

“The concern now is that temperatures are going to drop tonight, Thursday night and Friday morning,” Vaught said Wednesday. “That creates the possibility of icy patches on the roads. However, with people driving on the roads today (Wednesday), hopefully most of the moisture will be gone by the time the temperatures fall back below freezing.”

Albany and Dougherty County officials sent out a joint news release late Wednesday afternoon informing employees and citizens that both governments would be open as usual today. Assistant City Manager Wes Smith, who met with City Manager James Taylor, County Administrator Richard Crowdis and other city and county officials around 2 p.m. Wednesday to discuss plans, sent a short announcement to the media about 3:30 p.m.

“The city of Albany and Dougherty County governments will be open as usual Thursday,” the announcement read. “Early morning temperatures will be very cold, with bitterly cold wind chills in the teens. Travelers should still exercise caution, especially on bridges, overpasses, on/off ramps and rural roads.

“Albany Transit System will be operating its regular schedule, but may experience some delays if conditions warrant. Safety first.”

Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital had some clinical staff members spend Tuesday night on the hospital campus in case other staffers were unable to drive to work Wednesday. Hospitals throughout the Phoebe system have been staffed with clean linens and food supplies for several days as well as backup generators.

Dr. James Sirleaf, a physician at Phoebe’s emergency center, said Wednesday that the patient volume did not spike, but that there was a different range of injuries — such as more injuries associated with falls or car accidents. He said staff members expected to see more frostbite cases before the cold weather exits the area.

“It was a good idea (for many people) not to go into work today,” Sirleaf said. “That likely kept our numbers down.”

Also, Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany reported no significant issues. Officials with the military installation said it would resume normal operations today.

At Chehaw, the zoo portion was closed Wednesday, but the animals carried on business as usual, blissfully unaware of anything unusual.

“They’ve adjusted to this weather change better than the humans,” said Ben Roberts, manager of animal programs at Chehaw. “A lot of the animals, especially the kangaroos and emus, are naturally accustomed to below-freezing temperatures.

“The main concern we have is with the primates – the weather doesn’t bother them, but they sometimes have a tendency to get frostbite on their fingers and toes without realizing it.”

Fortunately, none of the animals was injured or affected by what forecasters have dubbed Winter Storm Leon.

“We have backup plans and generators designed especially for unexpected situations like this,” said Morgan Seegmueller, Chehaw’s public relations coordinator. “Because we were prepared, we didn’t have any problems.”

Most area schools were reopening today, with Worth County schools being an exception. Some schools had announced delayed starting times for today.

Carlton Fletcher, Jennifer Park, Terry Lewis and Laura Williams contributed to this article.