Area prepares for second round of winter weather

Get ready for round two as local and state officials urged residents to learn from last week’s storm and stay off the roads during icy conditions forecast for Tuesday.

“It doesn’t mean it’s a free day. It doesn’t mean it’s a shopping day,” said Capt. Doug Cain, spokesman for the Louisiana State Police. Cain was referring to Friday when schools and businesses closed because of the winter storm, but people still hit the interstate, resulting in about 200 accidents along the Interstate 10 corridor.

The winter weather headed toward southeast Louisiana Tuesday is expected to be wetter, colder and stick around longer, which means there will likely be a repeat of road and bridge closures in some areas, Cain said.

During the storm Friday, State Police responded to 744 crashes and other traffic incidents that resulted in the deaths of six people compared to the 168 crashes and other incidents with no fatalities a week earlier on Jan. 17.

“I think that gives some good perspective of what we have to deal with,” Cain said.

Cain asked people to have patience during and after the storm. When roads and bridges started to reopen Saturday, it was like a starting gun going off and resulted in accidents and more congestion.

For example, Cain said, 30 minutes after the Causeway bridge over Lake Pontchartrain reopened, it had to be closed again because of a three-car wreck.

“Take your time. Plan ahead. Know alternate routes,” he said, but most importantly, stay off the roads if at all possible.

Baton Rouge businesses, meanwhile, were bracing for a repeat of the icy conditions that stranded droves of people in the Capital City after the interstates closed Friday and didn’t reopen until late Saturday morning.

With nowhere to go Friday, dozens of motorists packed into the Waffle House on Sherwood Forest Boulevard off Interstate 12 and consumed cup after cup of coffee and hot chocolate, prompting the restaurant to call in extra employees living nearby.

“They were all asking when the interstate was going to open because they were just ready to get back home,” said Traylynn Wilson, a waitress at the restaurant, adding the restaurant was “extremely busy” Friday and Saturday. “They were just surprised. Most people were travelling and had their trips delayed.”

Despite the gridlock outside, Wilson said the mood remained mostly jovial.

“Tomorrow it’s supposed to snow, so we’ll probably be looking the same way,” she said Monday.

The state Department of Transportation and Development spent Monday loading trucks with salt and sand to prepare for the storm.

Salt, sand and de-icing material can’t be put out too early, said DOTD spokesman Rodney Mallett, because the material will just be blown off the roads before the storm arrives. Some areas will get pre-treated closer to the expected arrival of bad weather, and the focus this time will be on trying to keep some of the main roads clear.

During the last storm, DOTD staff worked to keep La. 61 and Florida Boulevard open for the most part while sections of I-10 and I-12 were closed because of ice.

“That was a heroic effort,” Mallett said.

It’s likely, Cain and Mallett said, that areas, including the Atchafalaya Basin bridge, will close during the storm because it’s extremely difficult to keep a 22-mile elevated road located over water from freezing.

This time, DOTD is going to prioritize the major routes, including U.S. 190 and Airline Highway, for sand, salt and de-icing efforts, Mallett said, to keep those roads open, if possible. However, if conditions become unsafe, roads will be closed.

“Mother Nature can win sometimes,” Mallett said.

The best bet, he said, echoing what emergency and law enforcement officials said, is to stay home.

“It’s not a holiday. It’s a bad-day-to-drive day,” he said.

In Baton Rouge, city-parish departments prepared for the expected days of bad weather and roads, and the Department of Public Works made sure there will be enough sand for road work.

“I think we underestimated last week, but this week we have more than enough,” said Mayor Melvin “Kip” Holden.

The focus will be on trying to keep roads and bridges open, but the first focus of residents should be safety and making sure they’re prepared for the bad weather, he said.

“This is nothing to play with,” Holden said.

He also encouraged people to stay off the roads and to prepare ahead of time by making sure they have food, water and to check on the elderly and neighbors.

If people take a medication or there are special needs in the house, Holden said, it’s important to take care of those ahead of the storm, just like people should do before a hurricane.

“If you don’t have to be on the road, don’t go out there,” he said.

Advocate staff writer Jim Mustian contributed to this report.