Thaw expected this afternoon, but relief could be brief

12/07/2013 1:30 PM

12/08/2013 10:20 AM

For everyone getting cabin fever, temperatures are still expected to climb above freezing this afternoon.

But here’s the bad news: the Texas Department of Transportation is urging everyone to stay home.

“We’re still discouraging all travel throughout the Metroplex,” said TxDOT spokeswoman Jodi Hodges. “There are still bridges with ice packs of 5 to 6 inches. And we have that cobblestone effect, where ice has melted and refreezed and created these deep ruts.”

TxDOT crews will stage rolling roadblocks on all major roadways across the DFW area today, but those efforts were already being hampered early this morning by 18-wheelers stuck on some highways.

“We’ve got 18-wheelers stopped in the middle of the road,” Hodges said. “We’ve got to get those trucks out of the way for our crews to get through. We are working with DPS to wake them up and get them out of the way.”

Some of the biggest problems have been along I-35W at Heritage Trace Parkway and also along northbound U.S. 287 in northern Tarrant County. Some of the truck drivers have been stuck for as long as 24 hours; a 4-mile section of I 35W near Heritage Trace and Golden Triangle Boulevard was temporarily closed this morning.

Sections of both I-20 and I-30 from the west side of Fort Worth to Palo Pinto County were also close to impassable.

TxDOT will work with tandems of graders or plows to try and clear highways of ice.

“Our goal is to work on all major highways,” Hodges said. “It’s hard to say how much headway will be made. It just depends on the weather. If we can get several hours of sunshine, it will really help.”

DPS spokesman Lonny Haschel said Saturday that troopers try to help TxDOT clear the roads

“We’re working with TxDOT to get the heavy ice cleared. If the trucks are moving, that’s fine,” Haschel said. “The problem is the ones that get stuck. Those drivers will be asked to pull over to a frontage road or someplace safe until we can get the freeways cleared.”

One of the worst spots is the Interstate 20/30 split in far west Fort Worth, he said.

“They’re trying to get those trucks moved off the roadway,” he said. “Especially in this area, DPS encourages people not to travel unless it’s an absolute emergency, so the crews can get things cleared up.”

The state Transportation Department has had nearly 300 pieces of equipment and 600 employees working since before the ice storm hit, spokesman Val Lopez said.

The first chance for a warm-up is this afternoon after a record-setting freeze that descended on the Metroplex on Thursday and continued to bedevil anyone who ventured outside Saturday.

But the National Weather Service extended the freezing fog advisory from I-35W eastward until noon.

Forecasters now think temperatures won’t get above freezing until 1 or 2 p.m. That should be enough to melt some ice on Metroplex streets, but whatever remains wet will refreeze tonight.

“I honestly don’t think it’s going to make much of a difference,” said Jennifer Dunn, another meteorologist in the Fort Worth office. “Anything that does melt is going to refreeze. An event this massive is going to take some time to get over.”

At DFW Airport, 2,076 passengers spent Saturday night inside terminals, about a thousand fewer than Friday night.

So far, about 400 departures have been canceled today.

Many churches were also canceling services, and officials advised parishoners to check websites or call their church before venturing out.

Interstate 20 closed

Interstate 20 west of Weatherford had to be shut down early Saturday, DPS Senior Trooper Gary Rozzell said. Texas 180 between Weatherford and Mineral Wells was also closed.

Ranger Hill, about 90 miles west of Fort Worth, has been particularly hazardous, with some drivers stranded for hours on the steep and curvy section of I-20.

“I’ve been here 13 years, and this is as bad as I’ve seen it. We got about 2.5 inches of ice and it’s still there,” Rozzell said.

Interstate 35 between Denton and Oklahoma is also treacherous, Haschel said.

“We’re waiting for Mother Nature. We are looking forward to that 34-degree heat wave Sunday. Hopefully, we can make progress, but it is going to freeze again Sunday night,” he said.

The Pilot Travel Center in Weatherford had four times the usual number of truckers parked there Saturday night.

“We’re slammed. We’ve got 120 to 130 trucks here. Nobody is moving,” worker Casey Robinson said.

Travelers have been hunkering down in Gordon, about 65 miles west of Fort Worth, since Thursday night, said Pat Jewell, manager of the Longhorn Inn.

“Some people braved it and left, and those rooms are already filled,” she said. “We’re overloaded. It’s really bad out there.”

The inn was putting some people up in the lobby of a home it uses for reunions and sending the overflow to the First Baptist Church in Gordon.

Pastor Michael Jones said the church sheltered 15 people Friday night.

“We don’t know what tonight will bring. People have been bringing in food and bedding. There aren’t a lot of options around here, so we try to be ready to help,” Jones said.

In Denton County, churches took in several hundred stranded motorists Friday night, said Karen Perry of the Sanger Church of Christ.

“There is nowhere for them to go,” she said Saturday night. “We have 11 here tonight, and another church in Sanger has 23. Some are here for a second night. The ice ruts are 3 or 4 inches deep. People are stuck in the middle of the road.”

Sanding nonstop

Other major areas that saw problems in Fort Worth were I-30 and Camp Bowie Boulevard on the west side, I-35W at Texas 170 near Alliance Airport and parts of U.S. 287, where 18-wheelers are 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.

Fort Worth’s sanding trucks started at 5:30 p.m. Thursday and never stopped, city spokesman Bill Begley said.

“By 7 a.m. Saturday, they’d combined for nearly 800 tons of sand spread,” Begley said. “They covered more than 200 locations. They’re still sanding everywhere they can get to but focusing on major overpasses and inclines, emergency access routes to hospitals and fire and police, major command and control centers like Oncor, and critical supply locations.”

Dangerous conditions on U.S. 75 in Grayson County prompted the county’s emergency management office to tweet 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.”

Thousands remain stranded at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport after more than 1,400 flights were canceled Thursday and Friday. DFW Airport said airlines canceled more than 400 departures Saturday, about half the usual departure schedule. Two runways were open.

44,000 homes without power

Oncor said power outages across North Texas had dropped to 44,000 Sunday morning, from a peak of more than 200,000 Friday. Only about 600 people were without power in Tarrant County.

More than 4,200 Oncor personnel, contractors and mutual-assistance partners were working on the outages Saturday, with more on the way to help with restoration, Molina said.

“Because of the issues we’re seeing with the ice, we want to remind people that if they see a downed power line, stay away from it and call 911,” said Oncor spokesman Jeremy Molina said.

A rash of accidents

“This is the worst I’ve seen since at least the Super Bowl,” when temperatures stayed below freezing for 100 hours, said Ramirez, the Fort Worth police captain. “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.”

Between 9 p.m. Friday and almost 9 a.m. Saturday, Fort Worth police were dispatched to 17 major accidents, 14 minor ones and three hit-and-runs. From 6 a.m. to noon Saturday, there were 19 major accidents, eight minor ones and two hit-and-runs, said officer Daniel Segura, a police spokesman.

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, according to the DPS.

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.

MedStar answered its 300th call in 36 hours at 3 p.m. Saturday, twice what the ambulance service would normally get, spokesman Matt Zavadsky said.

“We’ve responded to 10 collision calls since midnight,” Zavadsky said. “The vast majority of the calls are traumatic injuries and falls. It looks like about 41 falls since midnight. We’re up to 28 OB calls, and we normally would have responded to eight in that time period. These are women who probably would have gotten a ride to the hospital other than an ambulance if the roads weren’t icy.”

Homeless people overwhelmed Fort Worth’s three shelters, and the city opened the Bertha Collins Community Center as an emergency shelter. The added 50 cots there gave the city more than enough beds to handle the 910 or so people who sought shelter, said Cindy Crain, spokeswoman for the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition.

The temperature was expected to dip to 24 degrees Saturday night, said Bradshaw, with the weather service.

A high of 26 at DFW Airport at 6 p.m. Saturday easily beat the 33-degree previous high for Dec. 7, set in 1950.

By midafternoon Monday, the temperature should climb to near 40 degrees, leaving the area in “pretty good shape through the week,” Bradshaw said.

“We’ll have more slick spots for the Monday morning rush hour in the Metroplex,” Bradshaw said.

“We see another weak cloud system coming in from the southwest Tuesday, but we don’t see any real impact.”

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