Chattanooga area schools remain closed as officials consider what they could have done better

Chattanooga area schools remain closed as officials consider what they could have done better

January 30th, 2014 by Kate Harrison Belz in Local Regional News

Georgia Northwestern Technical College to be open

All campuses of Georgia Northwestern Technical College will open at 10:00 a.m. on Friday, January 31.

FRIDAY SCHOOL CLOSINGS

• Athens City Schools

• Bledsoe County Schools

• Bradley County Schools

• Catoosa City Schools

• Cleveland City Schools

• Chickamauga City Schools

• Chattooga County Schools

• Grundy County Schools

• Hamilton County Schools

• Marion County Schools

• McMinn County Schools

• Meigs County Schools

• Polk County Schools

• Rhea County Schools

• Sequatchie County Schools

• Walker County Schools

• Whitfield County Schools

Chattanooga Youth and Family Development Centers (rec centers) will open from 10:30 a.m.- 6 p.m. Friday to accommodate kids while school is closed.

Note: Some school closings reported by our partner, WRCB.

TODAY'S SCHOOL CLOSINGS

• Athens City Schools

• Baylor School

• Bledsoe County Schools

• Bradley County Schools

• Catoosa County Schools

• Chattooga County Schools

• Chickamauga City Schools

• Cleveland City Schools

• Dade County Schools

• DeKalb County, Ala., schools

• Girls Preparatory School

• Hamilton County Schools

• Jackson County, Ala., schools

• Marion County Schools

• McCallie School

• McMinn County Schools

• Meigs County Schools

• Notre Dame

• North Georgia Technical College

• Polk County Schools

• Rhea County Schools

• Richard Hardy Memorial School

• Sequatchie County Schools

• UTC 10 a.m. start

• Whitfield County Schools

Some school closings shared from our news partners at WRCB-TV.

Waking up in the Tennessee Valley on Wednesday, it may have all seemed like a bizarre nightmare.

Could such a tiny snowfall truly have wreaked such havoc on cities and highways across the region?

But across quiet, snowy Chattanooga, the evidence still lay splayed across the roads.

Terry Jones was one of dozens of locals trudging into the cold to retrieve an abandoned car -- in his case, left behind by his wife after it spun out of control to the side of the road the day before.

"It looks like someone sideswiped it," Jones said. "Some folks told me they saw two cars out of control on the hill, doing cannonballs down the road later, so that was probably it."

As officials began making their own next-day assessments, it became clear just how expansive the small snow's toll had become: 3,500 911 calls at a volume and rate higher than that of the April 27, 2011, tornadoes. Scores of car wrecks, including four sheriff's patrol vehicles and eight school buses stranded or involved in minor collisions. Children stuck at schools until as late as 7:30 p.m.

And the fallout isn't over yet. Many schools across the region, including Hamilton County's, remained closed today. The cold isn't done with us, either. A low of in the single digits was expected overnight.

Still, though temperatures never got higher than 31 degrees Wednesday, the relative quiet allowed regional officials to reflect on decisions made quickly during the chaos of an unexpected snowfall, slick roads and gridlocked traffic. Some decisions they are proud of.

Others, they say, they need to review.

"It was, I hope, a rare event. But I think every event like [Tuesday's] is an opportunity to learn something," said Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith.

Smith, who has worked in the school system's central office for 27 years and is used to carefully tracking weather reports, said Wednesday that he had never seen anything like Tuesday's events.

While he had been watching forecasts for 24 hours prior, Smith said he was not notified of potential snowfall until 9 a.m.

While the schools have a tiered bus system and a protocol for early dismissals, Smith said the especially slick snow and the gridlock hampered what are usually reliable transportation plans.

Ben Coulter, who manages the school system's bus fleet, said several buses were tied up in traffic for more than two hours, and eight buses were also involved in minor accidents.

"One of them, a person rear-ended a bus. Then we had a bunch that were off in the ditch, because they had slid off the road," Coulter said.

The buses were not seriously damaged, and no bus-related injuries were reported, Coulter said.

One group of children in a stranded bus was taken to Collegedale City Hall, where parents retrieved them.

The last children were delivered at home from Hunter Middle School around 7:30 p.m., driven by a faculty member's husband with a four-wheel-drive vehicle, said Smith.

Such extraordinary measures were indicative of the great lengths teachers and administrators went to get children home safely, Smith said.

But in the future, he added, the school system needs to set up better up-front communication with Emergency Services, public works departments and law enforcement to plan the best possible transportation of students.

Communication with parents during such events, Smith said, will also be a big factor under review.

Tracy Fiore-Love, a parent of two boys at East Ridge Elementary, said that is crucial after what happened Tuesday.

Snow partially covers the ground in this view from the Veterans Bridge in Chattanooga.

Photo by Erin O. Smith/Times Free Press.

Like many parents Tuesday afternoon, Fiore-Love got stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic leaving work after getting multiple notifications around 10:30 a.m. that her sons would be released from school early.

The boys are set up to ride the bus home in case of early release, but after two hours, they still were not home. Fiore-Love called the school's transportation hotline and got no answer.

Finally, a neighbor's husband passed by the school and found that the buses had not been running, and the children were all still at the school.

"I got eight notifications of the early release, but not a single notification that my children were stranded at school," Fiore-Love said. "How many parents sat anxiously awaiting their children's safe arrival home for hours on buses that never came? How many kids sat around school indefinitely wondering how and when they were going home?"

The mother says her complaint is not about the time of release, or the decision not to run the buses, but rather a lack of communication.

"While I am extremely grateful that my neighbor's husband picked up my boys and that they released them to him -- he's not authorized to pick them up, and nobody called me about it," she said. "It all ended fine, and clearly [Tuesday] was mayhem. But I think the system needs to be examined."

Smith said school officials would be reviewing in the coming weeks how to handle such situations in the future.

"I hear parents' frustration. And the thing is, this kind of weather scenario can happen again," Smith acknowledged. "We still have a good six weeks of winter ahead of us. And we've got to think about how to handle that."

In North Georgia, the smaller Dade County school system took a different tack.

As snow began drifting down Tuesday morning, Superintendent Shawn Tobin and his staff began debating how to get students home. He found out the roads had not been salted, and made the call around noon not to run the buses.

"My transportation director looked me in the eye, and said, 'I do not feel right having those buses out there,'" Tobin said.

The system told parents to pick up students at the school, then gathered all students in centralized locations at each of the system's schools to wait for parents to arrive.

Each child's name, address and phone number was put into a list, scanned and sent to the superintendent's office, which was checked and rechecked throughout the day. County services prioritized salting the roads leading up to the schools.

Of the system's 2,200 students, 300 were unable to be picked up by parents.

For those children, the school system had requested the help of the sheriff's office, which brought 20 four-wheel-drive vehicles -- including former military Humvees -- to transport children home.

"I get bashed on Facebook for not calling school earlier and for choosing not to bus. But now people are saying thanks for doing what we did," said Tobin. "We avoided a lot of big headaches."

EMERGENCY RESPONSE

The unprecedented gridlock put emergency responders in a bind as ambulances and firetrucks struggled to get through traffic Wednesday.

But Emergency Services public information officer Amy Maxwell said first responders managed "surprisingly well," and did not anticipate the agency would be reviewing its response plan, repeatedly calling the day an "unanticipated weather event."

Hamilton County's Emergency Operations Center was only partially activated at 1 p.m., then fully activated at 4:30 p.m.

The agency was forced to bring in additional staff and relied on volunteer fire departments -- some with ATVs -- to help respond to the high emergency call volume in hard-to-reach areas.

It was one of the highest call volumes experienced at the Hamilton County 9-1-1 call center, said shift supervisor LaVonda Clift.

More than 3,500 calls flooded in over 24 hours, a span that usually nets 800 such calls.

"Around 11 a.m. [Tuesday], it just all hit at once, all of the sudden," said Clift. "We had about 500 calls flood in out of nowhere."

The vast majority of calls were wrecks with no injuries, or stranded cars. Dispatchers had to tell most of those people that no help was available -- calls with injuries and life-threatening risks were given priority.

To keep the phones staffed, sheriff's officials in SUVs brought dispatchers to work, Clift said.

But even sheriff's deputies had trouble in the nasty weather.

"Those Impalas don't do much better than most cars out on the street [in the snow]," said Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Allen Branum.

Four patrol vehicles were involved in minor accidents because of the weather, Branum said.

On Wednesday, Branum said many roads were still covered in ice and snow simply because empty cars were blocking road crews from working.

"I've never seen an inch of snow cause this much havoc," he said.

More secondary roads were able to be sanded before nightfall, when temperatures were expected to drop to 6 degrees, according to WRCB-TV forecasts. Temperatures are supposed to reach 40 degrees today.

Chattanoooga Public Works director Lee Norris said the city, noting predictions of a hard winter, had bought larger stores of salt and sand early in the fall, when it was cheaper.

It was a crucial move, Norris said. This has been the fourth time the city has sanded the roads, but it has been, by far, the most extensive project of the winter.

"I hate to use the term perfect storm," Norris said, "but many things happened out of normal this time."

Staff writer Louie Brogdon contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.