Atlanta braces for plunging temperatures, ice, maybe snow

A winter storm watch goes into effect at 4 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 29, for Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Tulis)

Atlantans awoke to relatively mild weather Tuesday, but forecasters warned that streets could still become icy as fans arrive for the Super Bowl, with temperatures expected to drop more than 20 degrees during the day.

More than 100 of Tuesday’s flights were canceled at Atlanta’s airport and schools were closed across the city “in an abundance of caution” ahead of the storm front, which was churning toward Georgia Tuesday just as thousands of fans begin pouring into town for Super Bowl 53.

It was sweater weather for the morning commute. Office workers made crunching sounds stepping on the salt spread generously over Marietta Street, one of the main thoroughfares downtown. The salt caught the light from outdoor video boards set up for the Super Bowl, and reflected shades of blue, red and green.

Even a threat of icy weather is taken seriously in Atlanta, five years after cars, trucks and school buses became marooned on the southern city’s freeways in what became known as “snow jam.”

The storm system slowed somewhat overnight, but temperatures are still expected to plunge into the 30s by Tuesday afternoon and the 20s by evening, said Sid King, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

“When I came in this morning it was measuring about 50 in Atlanta, but it’s still expected to drop considerably,” King said.

Less than an inch of snow is now expected inside the perimeter highway that defines the metropolis, but emergency officials say they’re more concerned about the potential for ice.

A winter weather advisory remained in effect Tuesday for Atlanta, a city known for grinding to a halt in relatively light snowfalls.

Delta Air Lines “proactively” canceled about 170 flights at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, its main hub, the Atlanta-based airline announced late Monday.

Weather-related delays will be possible, particularly through Chicago and from Boston, as Super Bowl travel into Atlanta increases on Tuesday, the Federal Aviation Administration announced.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday said state offices in more than 30 counties in the northern part of the state would be closed Tuesday, including those in the Atlanta area.

“Temperatures are going to plummet,” the governor said.
The Atlanta Public Schools system closed its campuses, and other area districts followed suit.

New England Patriots fan Pamela Wales of Quincy, Massachusetts said it’s the potential for ice that concerns her most. During her visit to Atlanta this week, local television footage reminded her that Atlanta and ice don’t mix well.

“They were showing all kinds of pictures on TV from 2014 when everyone got stuck,” Wales said as she toured Super Bowl exhibits at the Georgia World Congress Center Monday afternoon.

The potential for black ice is also “the overriding concern” among emergency officials, said Homer Bryson, director of the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency.

“It’s very similar to what we saw in 2014 where the roadways will not have time to dry off before the moisture or precipitation on them refreezes,” Kemp said. “And that’s when you have black ice, and that’s what causes wrecks, which causes gridlock and public safety issues, injuries.”

Road crews began treating north Georgia’s major interstates, state routes and overpasses on Monday with brine, a liquid salt mixture.

The routes that both the Patriots and Los Angeles Rams must use to travel to and from practice venues will also be pre-treated. About 1,900 employees were on call and more than 420 pieces of snow removal equipment were ready, the Georgia Department of Transportation said in a statement.

Sunday’s Super Bowl will be played in downtown Atlanta in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and its roof will be open if weather permits, officials have said. There’s a 40 percent chance of showers Sunday, but highs will be near 58 degrees (14 Celsius). That’s slightly warmer than average for Feb. 3 in Atlanta, climate records show.

Tuesday’s weather posed the more immediate threat, and elected officials were already anticipating criticism as they calibrated their responses.

“It is often easy to pass judgment on how we in Georgia deal with snow and ice, but for those from the north what you do know is that an ice event is very different than a snow event,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said Monday.

Past Super Bowl weeks have been marred by wintry weather, including the 2011 game in Arlington, Texas. Ice coated roads around metro Dallas during the week before Green Bay defeated Pittsburgh that year. Chunks of ice also tumbled from the roof of Cowboys Stadium, hurting six workers on the ground.

In 2000, the St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans arrived in Atlanta shortly after an ice storm brought traffic in the city to a standstill.

Unseasonably cold temperatures followed, and both teams had to practice outdoors since the Georgia Dome was being used for Super Bowl pregame and halftime rehearsals. The Rams wore winter jackets and thermal underwear in the biting cold.

“It’s ridiculous,” Rams coach Dick Vermeil said at the time. “But there’s nothing you can do about it except try to survive.”

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