Local agencies preparing for deep freeze
by Laura Gaddy
Jan 03, 2014 | 4410 views |  0 comments | 61 61 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In this 2010 file photo, icicles form on rocks along U.S. 78 near Heflin. Photo: Trent Penny/The Anniston Star
In this 2010 file photo, icicles form on rocks along U.S. 78 near Heflin. Photo: Trent Penny/The Anniston Star
While many people are planning to stay in during next week's expected frigid weather, public utility crews and first responders are preparing to go out in the cold.

According to a National Weather Service forecast, the temperature in Anniston will drop below freezing Sunday night and is not expected to rise above 32 degrees until Wednesday. Highs are not forecast to break 24 degrees during the cold snap, and lows may dip to 6 degrees on Monday night, 15 on Tuesday.

Municipal infrastructure will be particularly vulnerable during the cold spell, according to local officials. Water lines are likely to freeze, roads to ice over and people outdoors will face risks, as well.

That means public employees must be ready to work to restore utilities and respond to incidents in the harsh conditions, officials say.

In Anniston, public works director Bob Dean and his employees had already begun planning for the cold weather Friday afternoon. Dean said the city had prepared its sand truck and loaded other trucks with a chemical to dissolve thick ice.

"You just have to wait to see what transpires," Dean said. "The biggest concern is a rain event."

The forecast calls for rain and snow Sunday. Dean said if the roads become too iced over for city crews to manage, Anniston could close some streets.

Jacksonville police Chief Tommy Thompson said his employees work closely with utility crews when the temperature drops below freezing. He said police officers are often the first to discover icy patches on roads and frozen water mains.

"Sometimes we find them spilling out and no one else has found them," Thompson said.

Thompson said officers also have to be on the lookout for stranded drivers, who are more susceptible to injury and illness when the weather is extremely cold.

Oxford fire Chief Gary Sparks said firefighters have taken a few extra steps to prepare for the unusually cold weather, locating chains to ease their trucks’ travel on icy roads and stashing extra clothing in case they get wet while responding to calls.

"Anytime there is cold weather we are subject to have more structure fires," Sparks said.

He said people often use space heaters improperly or try to heat their homes with ovens, which can lead to house fires.

"Sometimes they take chances," Sparks said.

In Piedmont, Jesse McKnight, superintendent of the city's Water, Gas and Sewer Department, said he was preparing for an influx of phone calls from customers as soon as the weather warms up. McKnight said that during the cold snap, some customers’ water pipes will freeze, but they may not notice the severity of the problem until the pipes thaw and start leaking.

He said his crews also have to be ready, no matter the hour, to respond to repair freezing meters and water mains. The utility work sometimes means employees must dig to find leaking water mains at night in icy conditions.

Three years ago, he said, Piedmont crews worked for 20 hours to repair three broken water lines in below-freezing temperatures on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

"You have to acclimate your body to the weather," he said. "You get used to it after a while."

For others stuck outside in the cold, the local Salvation Army on Friday opened its Noble Street headquarters as an emergency warming station. Anyone who needs temporary shelter is welcome at the station, said Capt. Bert Lind of the Salvation Army. Coffee, snacks and a television will be provided, he said. The group also will offer overnight shelter to the homeless free of charge during the cold spell, Lind said, waiving the normal $10 nightly fee.

Local schools, meanwhile, announced they would delay the start of classes next week to avoid problems with early-morning cold. On Friday, Faith Christian School announced it would delay classes by two hours on Monday, according to a release from the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency.

Local schools planning two-hour delays Monday through Wednesday include Anniston, Calhoun County, Cleburne County, Jacksonville, Oxford and Piedmont public schools, along with the Donoho School and Sacred Heart Catholic School in Anniston.

Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.

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