Traveling today is ‘to gamble with your life’

Posted Saturday, Dec. 07, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Crews were working frantically Saturday to prevent a repeat of Friday night, when motorists were stranded west and north of Fort Worth.

All highways were open and moving at midday Saturday, but some were just barely passable.

The major problems areas continued to be along Interstate 20 west of Weatherford, along I-35W in far north Fort Worth and further up I-35 near Sanger in Denton County.

Near downtown Fort Worth, the mixmaster at I-30 and I-35W was open but continued to be a problem, especially for 18-wheelers trying to negotiate the flyovers.

Large stacks of ice left behind by the tires of 18-wheelers have formed on bridges, and Texas Department of Transportation crews were trying to clean them up, said Jodi Hodges, a TxDOT spokeswoman.

“We continue to treat these ice stacks with salt and sand, and we do have plows on all of these highways,” Hodges said. “We are trying to pre-treat these ice stacks to see if our plows can make a dent. Depending on the sunlight and depending on the temperatures, we may not make much of a dent today.”

Traffic is moving on all roads, albeit slowly along I-20 and I-35W, Hodges said. The goal is to have one lane moving on all highways Saturday night, but Hodges warned that roads could become impassable again as temperatures fall.

“We need it to get above freezing to melt this ice pack,” Hodges said. Forecasters say that won’t happen until Sunday afternoon.

In the wake of a storm that dumped as many as four inches of ice on North Texas, travel remained hazardous all over. The official temperature dropped below freezing around midnight Thursday and has hovered in the teens and 20s since.

Early Saturday, I-20 west of Weatherford had to be shut down.

“The worst location is probably on I-20 at the Parker/Palo Pinto county line,” TxDOT spokesman Michael Peters said. “The temperatures got down in the teens, refreezing the slush on the roadways and creating three to six inches of ice.

“That is a very hilly section of roadway for about six miles that became very difficult overnight.”

At the mixmaster, trucks traveling west on I-30 had problems all night getting traction, including trying to drive across the flyover to southbound I-35W.

Other major areas that saw problems in Fort Worth overnight were I-30 and Camp Bowie Boulevard on the west side, I- 35W at Texas 170 near Alliance Airport and portions of U.S. 287, where 18-wheelers parked along the road, Fort Worth police Capt. Charles Ramirez said.

“Eighteen-wheelers were a major problem due to the fact that we did not have enough heavy-duty wreckers to assist with the clearing of the highways,” Ramirez said.

Between 9 p.m. Friday and almost 9 a.m. Saturday, Fort Worth police were dispatched to 17 major accidents, 14 minor, and 3 hit-and-runs.

I-35W northbound from U.S. 287 to Heritage Trace Parkway became a trouble spot Saturday morning. Some calls to police reported that vehicles were running out of gas.

Peters, the TxDOT spokesman, said crews will try to use plows and de-icing materials along that stretch of I-35W. If that doesn’t work, they will add more sand in hopes of allowing trucks to gain traction.

“It’s just going to be a constant battle there throughout the day,” Peters said.

In Denton County, I-35 was still gridlocked from Denton to Sanger, and TxDOT was warning that the freeway might be an issue all day.

“The problem is, as soon we get it open, it refreezes,” TxDOT spokeswoman Michele Releford said. “If you’ve got to get out, go to the corner store and go back home. Avoid major highways, because you might get stranded.”

Releford said one stretch of I-35 had improved by noon Saturday between Denton and Sanger but another stretch north of Sanger was now gridlocked. TXDOT was sending more rock salt from its Tyler district to seal with that stretch of I-35, Releford said major highways in Dallas County have improved and most are only seeing patchy ice.

On I-35E across the Lewisville Lake bridge, rescuers used a crane to pull out a pickup that had fallen into the lake. One person died in the crash, said Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Lonny Haschel.

It was too early to say whether the accident, which occurred about 3:50 a.m., was weather-related. But Haschel said the northbound I-35E bridge was icy at the time of the wreck.

Haschel warned that conditions on all major highways across North Texas were poor, from Tarrant and Denton counties westward through Palo Pinto County to Ranger Hill on I-20.

“We’ve got semis parked on the medians in Denton County waiting for crews to ice the bridges, “Haschel said. “I-20 had to be closed last night at Ranger Hill. If you must travel, you need to pack extra clothes and food because there’s a real possibility of getting stranded.”

Conditions were also bad northward along U.S. 75 in Grayson County, where the county’s office of emergency management tweeted that “traveling US75 NB & SB thru our County at this time is to gamble with your life, your property & that of your passengers & other motorists.”

The conditions aren’t likely to improve until sometime Sunday, when temperatures are expected to climb above freezing.

One unusual note from the storm. MedStar’s pregnancy/labor calls were way up. Between midnight Thursday and 4 p.m. Friday, they responded to 28 calls. Normally, they would see about four in that time frame.

At DFW Airport, the temperature fell to 21 degrees, but other areas saw the low drop into the teens. Wind chills were in single-digits in many areas west of Fort Worth.

Temperatures aren’t expected to climb above 26 today, and another bone-chilling night is ahead. There could also be a few light snow flurries or sleet pellets, but not enough to impact roadways further.

“If you don’t have to work, stay home,” National Weather Service meteorologist Joe Harris said. “We’re advising to avoid all travel if possible.”

The good news is, forecasters now are predicting that temperatures will reach the upper 30s on Sunday with sunny skies.

“That’s when we’ll start seeing some melt-off,” Harris said.

Thousands were stranded at DFW Airport after more than 1,400 flights were cancelled Thursday and Friday. More departures were canceled Saturday.

“Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport continued operations on a limited basis overnight, with some cargo and passenger flights departing,” the airport said in a statement. “Most of the overnight focus has been on treating all airfield surfaces and public roadways, and accommodating over 3,300 passengers staying in the terminals.”

DFW Airport said airlines have canceled more than 400 departures Saturday, about half of the usual departure schedule. Two runways were open.

American Airlines said operations will remain limited at DFW throughout Saturday.

Crews were also still working to move a Lufthansa jet that slid off the ice while taxiing Friday night and became stuck. Passengers were bused back to the terminal.

Oncor said power outages across North Texas had dropped to 135,000 Saturday morning, from a peak of more than 200,000 on Friday, with most customers expected to be restored by Sunday night. In Tarrant County, the number without power had dropped to more than 7,000.

Perhaps remembering the fiasco of a frozen Super Bowl week two years ago, when an inadequate response to a winter storm crippled the region and left visitors stranded on impassable highways, this time, all of North Texas mobilized before the freezing rain began.

Most area school districts — including Dallas, Fort Worth and Arlington — as well as colleges and universities canceled classes for Friday. Oncor started advising customers to text “Out” to 66267 if they lost power.

Many holiday events were canceled. In Dallas, officials canceled Sunday’s Dallas Marathon, which was expected to draw 25,000 runners, some of whom had trained for months.

Friday’s massive winter storm extended from South Texas through the Midwest and Ohio Valley and up into northern New England and the Canadian Maritimes. In the Dakotas, the weather service forecast wind chills that would make the temperature feel as low as 40 degrees below zero.

In Texas, roads were icy as far south as Waco and as far west as Abilene. To the north, everything was covered in ice through Oklahoma and toward the Texas Panhandle.

Roads won’t improve soon

The freezing rain and sleet that started about twilight on Thursday stopped around lunchtime Friday, but the bitter cold remained.

By 10 p.m. at DFW Airport, it was 26 with a wind chill of 14.

But the wintry precipitation mostly moved out Friday, so the National Weather Service office in Fort Worth canceled a winter storm warning and advisory at 3:25 p.m.

But “the roads aren’t going to get any better until we can get some warming,” said Ted Ryan, a weather service meteorologist.

“The ice and slush already there is going to re-refreeze, and it’s going to stay pretty terrible. If people don’t have to travel, they shouldn’t.

Countless fender-benders

In Arlington, a 29-year-old Arlington man was killed when he crashed into a stopped 18-wheeler shortly after midnight Friday on Interstate 20.

“This is the worst I’ve seen since at least the Super Bowl,” when temperatures stayed below freezing for 100 hours, Ramirez said. “I’ve got chains on my tires and my car is just shaking. You can only go about 15 mph. If you’re planning to go to work, you need to plan on at least two hours.”

Fort Worth police worked 213 traffic calls between 4 p.m. Thursday and 9:30 a.m. Friday, according to their website. Then, between 9:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. Friday, they worked 58 wrecks, according to records. Evidently, people were staying inside.

Eight of the incidents were classified as “hit and run,” while the rest were about evenly split between “minor” and “major.”

Ramirez said that about 60 of the wrecks overnight involved injuries or vehicles blocking a roadway. But there were countless other fender-benders where police didn’t respond.

‘We just told them to exchange insurance information,” Ramirez said. “We didn’t go out unless we had to.”

Staff writers Bill Miller, Yamil Berard and Andrea Ahles contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press.

TALE OF TWO STORMS

How does this winter storm compare with one that paralyzed the region during Super Bowl week in February 2011. Here’s a look at the two storms (2013 figures are projected):

DatesJan. 31-Feb. 4, 2011Dec. 5-8, 2013
Hours below freezing10062
Highest precipitation8 inches snow2 inches iceNo snow4 inches ice
Lowest temperature15 degrees16 degrees

Source: National Weather Service

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698 Twitter: @fwhanna

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