Response plans in spotlight as area recovers
by Sarah Fay Campbell
The late January snowstorm that crippled much of the metro-Atlanta area has led many state agencies and local governments to review their responses to severe winter weather and to look at ways to improve.
In Coweta, officials were pleased with local responses to the winter storm.
The same certainly can’t be said for Georgia’s state government, the city of Atlanta, and several other metro-area municipalities.
Governor Nathan Deal has already implemented some changes and is convening a task force to make recommendations for future changes.
The task force is set to have more than 30 members, including representatives of state agencies, state legislators, meteorologists from four Atlanta television stations, representatives from some metro-school systems, Atlanta’s police and fire chief, a representative from the trucking industry and one from Delta airlines, a former commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation, and representatives from power and phone companies. The task force is set to make a report within 60 days.
On Monday, Deal also asked agency heads involved in emergency response to submit a report and action plan to the governor within 10 days.
Coweta County agencies will also be looking at ways to improve.
“Overall, we feel that the county executed our emergency plans in an effective manner,” said Coweta County Administrator Michael Fouts. “However, we have asked our departments to review their equipment and related inclement weather plans to discuss any opportunity for improvement.”
Following the governor’s announcement, some changes went into effect immediately. One was to set up a storm warning system that will trigger messages to cell phones in affected areas, similar to the Amber Alerts for missing children, and advise against travel. “We will go one step further with school superintendents by e-mailing them weather condition updates,” said Deal, “so that they have the most up-to-date information when determining whether to close schools.”
There will also be overhauls to the state's emergency “app,” including shelter information, alternative transportation routes and other emergency-related information, Deal said. Lastly, “as storms approach, I have ordered the Georgia Emergency Management Agency to consult with local meteorologists on current weather modeling and predictions.”
On Wednesday night and Thursday morning, some Atlanta area drivers were warned of an impending winter storm on the overhead message signs along the interstates.
The Georgia Department of Transportation removed the warnings early Thursday morning.
According to a GDOT statement, “in our desire to proactively inform the traveling public of potential hazardous road conditions, we overreacted to a weather statement from the National Weather Service and incorrectly posted watch and warning messages on our overhead message signs.”
GDOT said Thursday that “we will post additional information once we are closer to the time of a storm and have current and confirmed information.”
There was some wintery precipitation Thursday night, but not much. Some areas of Coweta received a light dusting, with some accumulation on vehicles and elevated porches.
During the January snow event, some Newnan Police and Coweta Sheriff’s Office vehicles were equipped with snow tires or snow chains. But, for the most part, “we made it around the county all right by going slowly and cautiously,” said Coweta Sheriff Mike Yeager.
“We are pleased with how well everything went,” said Newnan Police Chief Buster Meadows. “We will always review what we did and make changes if necessary,” he said. There are no plans to buy any additional equipment.
The NPD used the city’s military surplus Hummer to assist some motorists. “It was of great help to us and the citizens,” Meadows said.
In preparation for the winter storm, the Coweta County Fire Department put together two “task force units.” These were four-wheel drive trucks equipped with winches, medical supplies, and rescue and fire suppression equipment. They were staged in trouble spots and “this allowed us to keep our larger pumpers and aerial trucks in the stations and off the roadways unless those types of resources were needed,” said Deputy Chief Todd Moore.
Some of the newer fire engines are equipped with automatic snow chains that can be activated from the truck cab, said Moore.
During the snow event, there were a few times that winches had to be used to pull fire engines up icy hills.
“As a department, we take storm forecasts very seriously and we pre-plan for such events,” said Moore. “In public safety, you have to be pro-active and not reactive in preparing your action plans.”
Moore said he thinks the governor’s reforms and task force are a “good step toward enhancing public safety.”
After the ice storm in 2011, the state made some changes to the way it treats state highways as a result of lessons learned.
“The goal in public safety operations is to learn from previous events,” Moore said. “The lessons learned can come from things that went well or from things that didn’t go well. We all want to learn from operational mistakes and not repeat those in the future.”
The task force seems to be more geared toward the city of Atlanta and the northern suburbs, said Coweta Emergency Management Director Jay Jones. He thinks a 60-day time frame for coming up with recommendations might be somewhat ambitious.
However, “whatever they put out, we’ll be glad to look at it… we’re always willing to improve and we will improve."
“Here, we all communicate well with each other, all the departments — from the school system to the municipalities and public safety folks,” Jones said of Coweta’s officials. Jones has added several of the county’s larger industries to his email distribution list.
“I think overall we do a good job here, but we don’t want to pat ourselves on the back too much,” said Jones. “You’re only as good as your last event — as soon as you think you’re better than that, that is when you can get hurt."