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Numbing cold taking toll in South; more frigid nights ahead

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 2, 2018, 4:57 p.m.

Icicles form on the tritons in the Forsyth Park Fountain Tuesday morning, Jan. 2, 2018, in Savannah, Ga. (Steve Bisson / Associated Press)
Icicles form on the tritons in the Forsyth Park Fountain Tuesday morning, Jan. 2, 2018, in Savannah, Ga. (Steve Bisson / Associated Press)

ATLANTA – A prolonged stretch of brutal cold is taking a toll in the South, sending people in Atlanta to the emergency room seeking treatment for hypothermia and existing ailments made worse by the frigid weather.

The temperature in Atlanta fell below freezing at 8 p.m. New Year’s Eve and remained there for the next 40 hours. As dawn broke Tuesday, it was 13 degrees Fahrenheit in the city.

“We have a group of patients who are coming in off the street who are looking to escape the cold – we have dozens and dozens of those every day,” said Dr. Brooks Moore, associate medical director in the emergency department of Grady Health System, which operates Georgia’s largest hospital.

About once a day or every other day, emergency room doctors at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta must raise someone’s body temperature with warming blankets, warm fluids or other measures, Moore said. About 10 to 20 people with existing health ailments show up each day at Grady’s ER because the bitterly cold temperatures have exacerbated their conditions, he said.

Temperatures in Atlanta are expected to dive well below freezing every night this week through Saturday night, the National Weather Service said Tuesday. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency through Friday for 28 counties because of the frigid weather.

Below-freezing temperatures have been common this week across the Deep South, even reaching New Orleans where it was 26 degrees before dawn Tuesday. The New Orleans area may see snow flurries Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, forecasters said.

The Louisiana Fire Marshal’s Office said it’s seeing an uptick in fires, some likely tied to home heating efforts amid the unusually frosty temperatures.

Chief Deputy Brant Thompson said the office’s deputies have responded to about a dozen investigations during the cold snap. What’s odd about the situation, Thompson said, is all the fires happened during the day.

“Generally, fires break out during the dark,” he said. “I’ve never seen a day in the last six years (in this job) where we’ve had that many calls for service to our agency during the daylight hours.”

In Mississippi, a low of 15 degrees early Tuesday tied the record for the date, which was set in 1979.

In Alabama, overnight lows dropped to 8 degrees near Cullman and 20 degrees in Mobile.

Georgia saw one of its coldest temperatures of the winter: 2 degrees shortly before dawn Tuesday at a U.S. Forest Service weather station at Toccoa.

Along the Georgia coast, the National Weather Service on Tuesday issued a winter storm watch as a low-pressure system in the Atlantic Ocean could bring ice and freezing rain to the area late Tuesday night and Wednesday.

Temperatures in Savannah hovered at 30 degrees at noon Tuesday, cold enough for icicles to dangle from the ornate wrought-iron fountain in Forsyth Park at the edge of the city’s downtown historic district.

The National Weather Service says Savannah could see up to 2 inches of snow and sleet Wednesday. Savannah hasn’t seen any measureable snowfall since Feb. 12, 2010, when 0.9 inches fell.

Mayor Eddie DeLoach urged Savannah residents to stay home and keep off the roads Wednesday. The city had dump trucks filled with sand to be spread on main roads, but not enough to treat all of Savannah’s streets.

“The streets will be slick,” DeLoach said at a City Hall news conference. “We could have some serious issues for folks who aren’t used to driving in this kind of weather.”

It rarely gets cold enough for snow to stick in Savannah, considering the average high temperature in January is 60 degrees.

“I’ve never seen icicles in Savannah, period,” said Sean Dempsey, a local restaurant manager who wore a hat, gloves and a thick coat to walk his dogs Tuesday in Forsyth Park. “I’m pretty sure last year at New Year’s, lots of families were in the park playing catch, Frisbee football and stuff like that.”