Icy bridge hampering efforts to get St. James students home

Updated at 5:45 p.m.Caught off-guard by a wintry chill that lingered longer than expected, St. James Parish school officials called a quick end to school Friday morning but not before more than 200 students were stuck for a time on school buses trying to cross a key Mississippi River bridge closed because of ice.

One school bus bringing students home — carrying the St. James school superintendent’s own daughter — was stuck on the Veterans Memorial Bridge in Gramercy for about an hour mid-Friday morning because of icing that halted traffic, said St. James Superintendent Alonzo “Lonnie” Luce.

Eight other buses waited for crews to put down sand and salt and for escorts to help them cross the Gramercy bridge. Icy conditions also shut the Sunshine Bridge upriver of Gramercy. That bridge is also in St. James.

The iced-over Veterans Memorial Bridge — along with generally poor conditions elsewhere — played a role in the closure of neighboring St. John the Baptist Parish public schools between 11 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.

St. John School Superintendent Kevin George said his system took the advice of parish emergency officials to end school early as weather forecasts worsened. St. John buses also use the Gramercy bridge.

But unlike St. John, which had to reroute three buses to the Luling Bridge downriver because the Gramercy bridge was closed, St. James Parish officials has more students to bring across the river because of a variety of magnet, college credit courses and other programs.

St. James’ Luce said, the safety of the bridges regularly presents a Catch-22 when making weather decisions about school.

“The river doesn’t really separate what we do, so we’ve got a lot of kids on different sides of the river that we’ve got to bring back and forth,” Luce said.

Though dozens of Louisiana school districts canceled classes Friday, school officials in St. James did not, pointing to weather reports Thursday and pre-dawn Friday that suggested temperatures would rise through the day.

Luce said those reports, which were discussed with parish emergency officials, indicated temperatures would reach 39 degrees by 8 a.m. Friday and warm up later in the day.

“We made the best decision we could with the data we had at the time,” Luce said.

But St. James school officials had to shift directions by 9:30 a.m. when a subsequent weather forecast — similar to the one St. John officials were told of about 10:15 a.m. — indicated the cold temperatures would linger.

“We immediately made the call when we got that weather report,” Luce said, “and started busing kids home immediately after that.”

In contrast, schools in nearby Assumption Parish, which is not divided by the Mississippi as St. John and St. James are, did not close school early, despite the conditions.

“We don’t have any crossings or any big bridges like the Sunshine,” said Assumption Parish School Superintendent Earl “Tibby” Martinez.

He said he probably would have canceled classes if he had to factor in buses crossing one of the big Mississippi River bridges.

St. James schools’ Luce said the bus stuck on the Veterans Memorial Bridge in Gramercy was stopped along with other traffic because of an accident ahead.

Once the crash was cleared, Luce said, the bridge iced up and dirt and salt had to be spread before thebridge traffic could move again.

He said that bus made it across the river to the east bank by about 11 a.m.

Seven of the eight other buses waiting for escorts made it across the Veterans Memorial Bridge with those escorts, Luce said.

But the last bus in the group, carrying students from Gramercy to the west bank, had to be rerouted upriver to the Sunshine Bridge. That bridge was closed, then reopened partially and then fully for a time Friday before being closed again Friday evening.

Luce said the last bus went across the Sunshine Bridge and had students home about 1 p.m. with no problems.

“Everybody is home fine.”