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Saturday February 6th, 2016 4:17AM

Deal expands state of emergency as storm looms

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) With memories of thousands of vehicles gridlocked for hours on icy metro Atlanta highways fresh in their minds, officials in north Georgia prepared Monday for another round of winter weather, with the governor declaring a state of emergency for 45 counties.

Gov. Nathan Deal, who was widely criticized for his response to the Jan. 28 storm that paralyzed the metro area and left motorists stranded in vehicles overnight, tweeted Monday morning about the weather-related emergency declaration and said it would be expanded as necessary. The counties affected as of Monday morning were Murray, Fannin, Gilmer, Union, Towns, Pickens, Dawson, Lumpkin, White, Cherokee, Forsyth, Hall, Banks and Jackson. All are in north Georgia, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

Shortly after the initial announcement, the governor expanded the state of emergency to include 31 additional counties, bringing the total to 45.

The additional counties include: Dade, Walker, Catoosa, Whitfield, Chattooga, Gordon, Floyd, Bartow, Polk, Paulding, Cobb, Fulton, Gwinnett, Barrow, Haralson, Carroll, Douglas, DeKalb, Clarke, Oconee, Oglethorpe, Wilkes, Walton, Rabun, Habersham, Stephens, Franklin, Hart, Madison, Elbert and Lincoln counties.

Gov. Deal said he will expand the order to additional counties as conditions warrant.

In a statement Sunday, Deal said he had put emergency response agencies on alert and begun significant preparations. He scheduled a news conference for noon Monday to further discuss winter storm preparations.

The National Weather Service issued a winter weather watch from 7 p.m. Monday through 7 p.m. Tuesday and a winter storm watch from Tuesday evening through Thursday morning for the metro Atlanta area. A winter storm warning is in effect for the 14 counties initially included in the governor's state of emergency declaration.

The storm has potential to reach beyond Atlanta and Georgia into other parts of the South. Forecasters said Alabama, which also saw stranded vehicles and other issues in the January storm, was likely to get a wintry mix of precipitation. Areas of Mississippi could see three inches of snow late Monday through noon Tuesday. And a blast of snow over a wide section of Kentucky slickened roads and closed several school districts.

Rain was expected Monday night in north Georgia, with predictions that it would change to snow by Tuesday morning and mix with sleet during the day. Snow was expected from Tuesday night through Thursday morning. Snow will likely accumulate, making driving conditions hazardous.

Emergency officials throughout the area have been urging residents to prepare their homes and vehicles.

State and local officials were widely criticized two weeks ago for what critics called a sluggish and inadequate response to the threat of severe weather that left tens of thousands of motorists stuck in their cars for hours and at least 280 students forced to sleep on their school buses because of icy, gridlocked roads.

The governor has apologized and last week announced the formation of a task force to develop recommendations on how the state can be better prepared and better equipped the next time severe weather hits metro Atlanta. He also called for various internal and external reviews and wants a new public alert system for severe weather, similar to what's used for missing and endangered children.

Even before the first snowflakes fell, people around Atlanta were planning to work from home and stay off the roads. Jay Ali, 33, a college student, said Monday morning that he planned to mostly stay indoors. He had little confidence that government officials would handle this storm any better than the last.

``New levels of incompetence,'' Ali said, describing the state and regional response to the last storm that left motorists stranded in their cars for hours, sometimes overnight. ``Unforeseen levels of incompetence.''

Ali said part of the problem is that Southern cities do not have as many snow plows, sanders and spreaders as Northern cities.

``I don't think they have the infrastructure to protect themselves if a storm gets really bad,'' he said.

Some commuters already planned to stay home once the storm started.

``Basically, everyone from the office is going to be working from home,'' said Dakota Herrera as he left a downtown car park on his way to the office.

Some people predicted that Deal and other officials might overcompensate at the first hint of snow. Gary Flack, 67, of Atlanta said he planned to check the weather report before heading into work Tuesday. During the last storm, he said he avoided getting stuck when a friend urged him around lunchtime to leave the city. That allowed him to escape the worst of the traffic gridlock that brought the region's highways to a standstill.

He said the scrutiny on the government from that storm might improve its response this time around.

``I can only think it will be better because there was a brouhaha,'' Flack said. But he added that he hoped officials won't needlessly close offices and schools just to make a point.

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