March 05--As a second winter storm in two weeks threatened Atlanta in mid-February, the state and local governments around the region were in a behind-the-scenes scramble for salt.
Just hours before sleet and freezing rain began to fall, more than 3,400 tons of salt were delivered in the nick of time. The arrival replenished supplies the previous storm had depleted, and narrowly averted a full-scale shellacking of metro Atlanta area roads that could have resulted in another catastrophic traffic shutdown.
Nobody wants such a close call again. And nobody wants a repeat of all the nail-biting and jockeying it took to get those salt shipments. GDOT officials are now looking at increasing their salt storage capacity. At the same time, the Severe Weather Task Force convened by Gov. Nathan Deal is considering how to create a more reliable salt supply chain in case back-to-back winter storms threaten the state again.
The total cost for the two storms has yet to be fully tallied. But so far this season, GDOT has wound up spending close to a million dollars on salt, according to GDOT chief engineer Russell McMurry.
What prompted the salt shortage was a series of unfortunate events, according to emails from top officials in the Georgia Department of Transportation obtained exclusively by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
GDOT salt supplies were severely depleted by the Jan. 28 squall, from about 30,000 tons typically kept on hand to just about 12,000 tons statewide.
Meanwhile, an unusually harsh winter heightened demand for rock salt nationwide. One major supplier, International Salt, said it increased shipments by 136 percent this winter compared to last year because of the demand. When it was unable to fill entire orders, the company tried at least to spread the salt around so partial orders could be delivered, said May Kay Warner, a company spokeswoman.
GDOT started trying to replenish its salt barns the week after the Jan. 28 storm, the emails show. But no salt was immediately available, even from suppliers as far away as Utah, according to McMurry.
He said salt companies were prioritizing deliveries to northern states that were bogged down by unremitting snowfall.
By Feb. 9, when a new storm was forecast to hit Atlanta, the need for salt suddenly became urgent.
Procurement officers from GDOT worked throughout that Sunday, Monday and overnight into Tuesday to obtain 2,400 tons from International Salt in Charleston, S.C. The state lined up contractors that delivered the salt by Tuesday afternoon, just hours before metro Atlanta rainfall turned to sleet.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation also agreed to sell 1,000 tons to Georgia that day.
Several of the trucks hauling the South Carolina shipment were delayed 12 to 13 hours when a subcontractor diverted them to a county in Georgia that was willing to pay higher hauling costs. GDOT is considering administrative action against that subcontractor.
McMurry declined to name the county -- which was not at fault, he said -- or the subcontractor. In the end a replacement shipment arrived in time to be spread on roads during the last storm.
"If the weather had turned sooner, it could have been much worse" McMurry said. "But we were fortunate."
Because GDOT was struggling mightily to supply for its own needs prior to the Feb. 10-14 storm, the state was helpless to aid local emergency management agencies that were also in the lurch due to the salt shortage.
Whitfield, Fayette, DeKalb, White, Cobb, Rockdale and Gwinnett counties and the city of Dahlonega all requested assistance in getting salt from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, according to GEMA spokesman Ken Davis.
But a GEMA official who emailed state maintenance engineer Dale Brantley seeking salt on Feb. 9 was turned away.
"I just don't have any right now to give away," Brantley replied.
Golden wrote to the governor's chief of staff Chris Riley saying that "there is a limited supply around the country and we are moving material around to meet our own short term needs."
The state did provide 50 tons of salt to Atlanta, which was used in part to keep ice from forming on state routes in the city.
DeKalb County spokesman Burke Brennan said the county obtained some salt from Carrollton. The county never ran out, though that was considered a "distinct possibility," because the ice began to melt sooner than anticipated.
"We are not begrudging the state," Brennan said."We were all in the same boat. We were all short on salt. Nobody had any to lend to anybody else, unfortunately."
Cobb County located 275 tons in Charleston which, added to the 600 tons it had on hand, was enough to meet its needs, according to Bill Shelton, the county road maintenance division manager. However, Shelton is considering adding to Cobb's storage capacity to avoid a shortage in the future.
"You prepare for what's happened in the past, because you want to be prepared the next time it happens," Shelton said.
Gwinnett County was asking for extra salt to spread in parking lots of police and fire stations. The county always had enough for roads, and the weather improved quickly enough that it didn't run out of salt for parking lots either, said county spokesman Joe Sorenson.
Sasha Dlugolenski, a spokeswoman for the Governor's office, said establishing a reliable supply chain for salt will be one of the topics of discussion for the Severe Weather Task Force. The group is expected to issue recommendations on better winter storm preparedness by mid-April.
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