published Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

Region pummeled by largest snowfall since '93

By Kate Harrison, Joy Lukachick, Andy Johns and Cliff Hightower

The winter storm that dumped at least 7 inches of snow in the region left downtown Chattanooga looking like a ghost town Monday with snow cloaking buildings and carpeting sidewalks.

The storm shut down government agencies, schools and businesses across the region, and many will remain closed again today.

"Everything just stopped. Everything is so still," said Faye Robertson, who ventured out into the streets from her apartment downtown at Patten Towers to buy some milk. "If I was in my younger days, I'd be out playing in it, but now I just want to get back inside and get warm."

Final totals for snow accumulation have not been calculated, but Monday marked the largest single-day total since the 18.5 inches of snow that hammered Chattanooga during the 1993 blizzard, according to Sam Roberts of the National Weather Service in Morristown, Tenn.

"The Chattanooga area definitely got the brunt of this storm in Tennessee," Roberts said.

John Hetzler grasped the rare opportunity to take his children sledding in Renaissance Park.

"I didn't think they'd ever get to see anything like this since it's been so long," he said.

As the day wore on, SUVs and trucks turned the snow into slush and people began crisscrossing through downtown on foot or, in a few instances, on four-wheelers.

SCHOOLS CLOSED TODAY

• Hamilton County

• Athens City

• Baylor

• Bradley County

• Catoosa County

• Chattooga County

• Cleveland City

• Dade County

• Dalton City

• Etowah City

• Georgia Northwestern Technical College

• Jackson County

• Marion County

• McCallie

• McMinn County

• Meigs County

• Murray County

• Notre Dame

• Sequatchie County

• Walker County

• Whitfield County

LOOKING AHEAD

Today's forecast isn't much better. WRCB-Channel 3 meteorologist Nick Austin anticipated sleet, freezing rain and snow throughout today. He recommended taking another day off from work, if possible.

"We may have some light freezing drizzle, and that will create a problem with icing," he said. "There could be lots of fog also, which will reduce visibility for anyone actually brave enough to get on the road."

Public works officials in Georgia and Tennessee also cautioned motorists about the prospects for ice and hazardous road conditions today.

"It's always dangerous after you clear the snow because the pavement stays wet and wet pavement turns into what we call black ice," said Mohamed Arafa, a Georgia Department of Transportation spokesman.

Law enforcement and emergency services in Hamilton County also are adopting strategies to cope with the weather.

Chattanooga Police Sgt. Jerri Weary said the department is having to prioritize its calls, taking many reports over the phone and sending officers to the most pressing emergencies.

Hamilton County EMS has called on more employees and trucks, and the trucks are equipped to make it through the snow, said Amy Maxwell, the agency's public information officer.

"The roads are still very treacherous," she warned. "If you don't have the proper vehicle, just don't go out."

Robertson said she plans to cozy up inside her apartment until the streets clear up.

"There's nothing much people can do about it, so we'll all just have to wait it out," she said.

TRAFFIC

On Monday, the snow clogged even the most-trafficked thoroughfares in the area, according to Tennessee Highway Patrol dispatchers. But what has been dubbed Chattanooga's "snowpocalypse" actually caused minimal traffic accidents Monday, as many drivers heeded law enforcement warnings and stayed off the roads.

Most response teams around the city spent the day recovering cars stuck on the side of the road.

"It's been crazy," said Betsye Bishop, dispatcher for Doug Yates Towing & Recovery. "We've been out clearing vehicles since 1 a.m., and I haven't seen a single one of my drivers in the shop all day."

By midafternoon, Bishop estimated, the company had responded to at least 25 calls for assistance. They've mostly been towing tractor-trailers, which have gotten stuck along highways all over the region, from Dayton Boulevard to Ringgold. They braced for an even busier night as slushy roads froze over.

OTHER CLOSINGS, CANCELLATIONS

• Chattanooga City Council and committee meetings

• Hamilton County Government and Courts

• Performance of "Beauty and the Beast," Memorial Auditorium (rescheduled June 20)

• Bradley County government and courts

• Catoosa County government and courts

• Marion County courts

• McMinn County government and courts

• Dialysis Clinic (Fort Oglethorpe, Hixson, Lyerly, Third Street, Broad Street) — 2-hour delay

CLEARING ROADS

It is hard to say how long it will take to clean up area roads, Tennessee and Georgia state transportation department officials said.

"It may take us a couple of more days," said Ray Rucker, TDOT Region 2 director. "None of this is going away."

He said the interstates were open enough for a steady flow of traffic, but TDOT crews have not had a chance to get to the secondary roads.

Lee Norris, deputy administrator for Chattanooga's Public Works Department, said he has about 35 to 40 people working on clearing city streets. But they are running into some problems.

"We're running low on salt right now and have no immediate plans of getting more," he said.

Norris was not sure how much salt is on hand, but "if we have another storm like this over the weekend, it won't be pretty."

During the night, crews saw snow fall so fast they couldn't keep up.

"As soon as we'd push with blades, it would fill back up," Norris said.

Jeff Hodge and Bryan Hickerson, Electric Power Board contractors, were on standby Monday afternoon. They said they stopped by the BP on Hixson Pike to warm up a little before grabbing lunch.

Hickerson, who is from Spencer, Tenn., said he stayed in a hotel the night before in preparation for the storm. They put chains on their trucks and drove around Chattanooga on Monday.

They expected more action during the night. "They call; we roll," Hodge said.

Rucker said he is not worried much about TDOT salt supplies because salt won't help combat heavy snows.

"With 8 to 10 inches, there's not much you can do but plow," he said.

FORECAST

East Tennessee and North Georgia

Tuesday: Mostly cloudy, with a slight chance of snow showers in the morning, possibly mixed with rain and freezing rain. Temperatures could reach the upper 30s and start to melt some of the snow, which could create more ice as temperatures drop later in the day.

Wednesday: Partly sunny and cold, with highs near 25.

Thursday and Friday: Mostly sunny, with highs in the low 30s.

Source: National Weather Service

NORTH GEORGIA SNOW WOES

Before the snow began to fall Sunday in North Georgia, night crews were on call and prepared to use 4,800 tons of salt and 4,000 tons of gravel, Arafa said. By Monday, 130 GDOT employees drove 119 snow plows, spreaders and salt trucks over 73 highways in the Northwest Georgia area.

While some Georgia county officials criticized state crews for focusing mainly on clearing the interstates early Monday, Arafa said those roads are the priority.

"We always start with the interstates and then move to state routes, starting with the most heavily traveled to the least heavily traveled," he said.

Cars littered the sides of interstates and main highways where drivers had to leave their vehicles because the snow was too high. But roads remained free of wrecks with injuries in East Tennessee and North Georgia through early Monday afternoon, officials said.

"Quite a few people slide off the roadway," said an emergency dispatcher for the Georgia State Patrol. "But I think we got lucky and a lot of people got snowed in at home."

Public works officials say they will be prepared for the continuing inclement weather. Walker County Coordinator David Ashburn said the county stockpiled sand and salt so crews should have plenty to work with.

"Right now we're doing OK, but who knows what the future holds?" Ashburn said. "We'll stay out there working until we clear all the highways."

Walker County was blanketed with 8 inches of snow and as much as 12 inches on Lookout Mountain, Ashburn said. The county dispatched 13 snow plows, but two of them slipped into ditches before clearing snow on Nickajack and Lake Howard roads.

Dade County Executive Ted Rumley said the county had enough salt to last three or four more days.

While roads improved Monday, the bigger concern could come with water refreezing overnight, Rumley said. He said there hadn't been any trees down yet, but that could change overnight.

"They're getting heavy on the mountain. They're leaning," he said.

Despite the heavy snow, most electric customers in Northwest Georgia at least can keep the lights on and the heaters blowing.

Jeff Rancudo, a spokesman for the North Georgia Electric Membership Corp., said there were about 600 outages over night, but virtually all customers had power restored by 10:30 a.m.

Around 9 a.m., Georgia Power officials estimated there were about 4,500 customers without power across the state.

Staff writer Adam Crisp contributed to this story.

More weather coverage:

Business: Snow shuts many area operations

Region pummeled by largest snowfall since '93

Region digging out from storm

There's no day like a snow day

'Business as usual' at locals hospitals



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