Metro Atlanta had fair warning of the storm outbreak that plagued North Georgia on Thursday afternoon, January 12th. Many school systems exercised caution and adjourned early or at least canceled evening events (preparedness that should take place more often). In the best case scenario, the heavy rain and wind would be dangerous for commuting. Several counties saw the worst case: the brunt of a vicious storm line that spawned five tornadoes.
There are no alternate driving routes to tornado outbreaks.
Both 95.5 WSB and Channel 2 Action News launched wall-to-wall storm coverage once the National Weather Service issued tornado warnings in the 4 p.m. hour. This is unscripted, continuous play-by-play of the storms, as they unfold, including detailed accounts of exactly where tornadoes hit.
On radio, I was part of the toggling round-robin; our ace meteorologist Christina Edwards did the heavy lifting here, as she simultaneously processed what the radar was showing and then said it on the air. News anchor Chris Chandler would then toss to me to ask about any storm damage I was hearing of and what I was seeing on our WSB Jam Cams in affected areas.
When Edwards mentioned the storm that spawned the tornado in Griffin was going to pass over I-75 near Locust Grove, Chandler asked me what people should do. My first thought, of course, was that people should not have been there in the first place. Doggedly driving in this kind of severe weather is a terrible decision. But trying to predict more than a few minutes out when this swift line would hit was also difficult.
The only advice I could impart was for people in the path to try and exit the freeway and hunker down at a business until the storm passed. That only works if traffic is moving fast enough for drivers to beat the squall to that exit.
Thankfully, this storm didn’t toss cars and trucks on freeways like toys, though it did upend some autos in certain parking lots.
But damaged utility lines caused a nearly four-hour closure of I-75/southbound just past the Henry-Spalding county line.
The jam on I-75/southbound was over 15 miles - barely moving. And there literally were no alternates to the alternates early in the closure.
Storm damage closed the main alternate to I-75, Highway 42/23. The same fate befell Highway 155, which could have channeled traffic from I-75 in McDonough down to Highway 16 and back onto the freeway. Highway 19/41 was the epicenter of storm damage in Griffin, so it was compromised, too.
We flew the Skycopter to Locust Grove on the following Friday afternoon to confirm a few remaining road closures. The damage was intense and on a sharp diagonal line: swaths of a woodline flattened, multiple trees laid over onto homes, lines and poles down. That neighborhood southeast of the Tanger Outlets was no place to drive then and certainly was not at the height of the storm.
Bind determination to arrive at point B spells trouble. Just as we covered here a couple of weeks ago, drivers inevitably get stuck in standing water during rainy deluges. Driving into the teeth of a nasty storm, as most of us have done, just increases the risk of injury, getting stranded, or at very least getting stuck behind a closure.
A friend of mine texted me after driving just outside of Griffin when the twister struck. He said that navigating the intense wind and rain was some of the most difficult driving he had ever done. He was trying to get home where his family had hunkered down in the hallway. Thankfully, he survived the drive and the twister spared their house. They spent all weekend helping storm victims in their area.
Making a trip because we most likely will survive is a low bar to set. This recent front through Metro Atlanta was forecasted for days. By the night prior, people knew the window when storms would hit. There was ample time to plan on not driving during that time frame.
As bad as the storms were - and they did block plenty of roads with debris and contribute to a number of wrecks - they could have taken a far greater human toll.
A headstrong, determined driver in a violent thunderstorm is still in danger and that is no place to willingly go.
Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.
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