Lessons learned implemented on 2nd storm

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- A DPW crew checks out the coating of ice on the Nairn Drive overpass but leaves it closed after evaluation as icy winter weather returns to south Louisiana. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- A DPW crew checks out the coating of ice on the Nairn Drive overpass but leaves it closed after evaluation as icy winter weather returns to south Louisiana.

On the worst day of the initial blast of icy weather last month, State Police alone grappled with 744 traffic accidents.

But when the fiercer storm arrived a few days later, troopers only had to tackle 168 crashes during the slickest period.

State and local officials say that lessons learned from the first storm on Jan. 24 — both by authorities and everyday citizens — made the difference.

The onslaught of bitter cold and freezing rain showed that some areas simply lack the equipment needed to try to combat a highly unusual winter storm, including Baker, Livingston and St. James parishes.

However, new steps to reduce icy roads, constant updates on Facebook and other social media and an err-on-the-side-of-caution approach to closing schools allowed Baton Rouge and other cities to avoid an Atlanta-style disaster of interstate pileups and stranded schoolchildren.

“In Louisiana, we saw what happened the first week,” State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson said.

In that case, Baton Rouge and other parts of south Louisiana were doused by a rare day of freezing rain and sleet.

Residents well-versed in how to prepare for hurricanes were suddenly grappling with slippery sidewalks, spinning cars and glazed streets. Even though schools and government offices were closed, many motorists ignored fervent pleas by authorities to stay off the icy roads.

After the first winter storm, City-Parish Public Works Director David Guillory said he spent time during the weekend trying to come up with ways to make the roads less hazardous, knowing more trouble was on the way.

“I never thought we’d get a lot of snow to need snow plows,” he said. “I was really trying to find ways to avoid ice on major thoroughfares.”

After calling officials in other parts of the country with more experience grappling with ice, local officials bought 3,000 gallons of a glycol-based de-icer last Monday.

Most areas that grapple with ice — generally more treacherous than snow — have trucks to spread de-icing liquid.

Not so in Baton Rouge, where heat, wind and rain get the most attention.

“This is the first time we’ve de-iced,” Guillory said.

DPW took some of its trucks that can haul liquid and used those to spread material, mostly on bridges and elevated roadways as well as some of the main roads and high-density residential areas.

“We avoided a lot of ice for quite a while,” he said.

Sherri LeBas, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said officials tapped into salt, sand and de-icing materials stored in north Louisiana, where ice storms are more common.

“What we did is pulled some of the equipment form the north and, as the storm continued to move across the state, we deployed the equipment to the places where we needed it,” LeBas said.

The state and local effort helped combat what, by all accounts, was a highly unusual burst of winter weather and its aftermath over six days.

State climatologist Barry Keim said the last time such back-to-back winter storms arrived was in north Louisiana in 2000.

Before that, it happened in 1997, also in north Louisiana.

Sections of interstates 10 and 12 between Lafayette and New Orleans were closed for 34 hours, a rare event.

The new Mississippi River Bridge, a key cog on a coast-to-coast interstate, was closed.

Countless other roads and bridges also were shut down as temperatures struggled to reach the freezing mark.

Keim said January in Baton Rouge was the coldest since 1985.

State cleanup costs so far total nearly $6 million.

One of the things that helped with the response, officials said, was the ability to communicate with residents, many of whom were stuck at home hungry for information.

Edmonson said his agency’s Facebook page got 20,000 likes during the three-day winter event, including road closure updates and pictures of just how bad conditions were.

The state Department of Transportation’s Facebook page also reflected a steady stream of closures and then openings a few days later.

Mike Faulk, superintendent of the Central public school system, said his district was able to keep parents abreast of developments through email and other outlets.

Communications among the city-parish, the Department of Transportation and Development, law enforcement and State Police got mostly good marks.

LeBas said that when officials concluded they had to close I-12 and reroute traffic to U.S. 190, mayors in towns along the way were notified that traffic would surge.

“Just communications, communications, communications,” she said. “We learned lessons.”

Yet some officials said they simply lacked the resources to grapple with such a storm.

“We just don’t have the equipment to have an ice storm like we would for another kind of event,” Livingston Parish Emergency Preparedness Director Mark Harrell said.

Harrell said DOTD lacked the salt distributors and spray trucks needed to prepare the roads for icy conditions.

Sheriff’s deputies had to use humvees to reach a home off Bend Road in Watson to assist a man having medical issues.

Deputies were able to reach the man and transport him to a hospital.

“I think we did well with what we had,” Livingston Parish Sheriff Jason Ard said. “We’ll be better equipped next time.”

Officials in Baker said they did not have enough sand to pour on major roads and bridges going in and out of the city.

“I had manpower,” said Julie McCulloch, director of the Baker Department of Public Works. “I just needed sand.”

McCulloch said the problem was that most of the roads that needed attention were either state or city-parish roads.

“I didn’t realize we would be responsible for state and city-parish roads, though,” she said.

In St. James Parish, which is divided by the Mississippi River, officials were caught off guard for the first storm on Jan. 24 when conditions deteriorated on the Sunshine Bridge.

That complicated efforts to return students home.

The state made the bridge a priority during the second storm.

“As long as we had one (bridge) between the two sides we were still able to allow the public to have some movement in some bad conditions,” St. James Sheriff Willy Martin Jr. said.

Schools were closed Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, which superintendents said ensured the safety of schoolchildren and kept motorists off icy roads.

“You can’t risk putting kids on a bus when you have got that kind of weather report,” Ascension Parish Superintendent Patrice Pujol said.

How the canceled days will be made up will vary from district to district.

Some school systems have extra days built into their calendars. In other cases, only minor adjustments will be needed, like converting planned half days to full days in the classroom.

College and university leaders said that, while Saturday sessions and other steps will be among the options to make up for lost days, closing the schools was the right thing to do.

“There was no overreaction,” LSU President F. King Alexander said. “Everybody’s been telling me they’ve never closed I-10 before.”

Southern University President Ronald Mason agreed. “All in all, I think we did the right thing,” Mason said.

One of the recurring themes in Louisiana was that, aside from any inconveniences, at least it was not another Atlanta, where 239 children spent the night on school buses and road conditions forced another 10,000 students to spend the night at their schools.

“When the forecast showed that snow and freezing rain would make our roads impassable and dangerous, we put together a plan to keep our people safe,” Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a prepared statement before the second wave of winter weather.

Baton Rouge Community College Chancellor Andrea Miller said officials acted prudently.

“It’s better to be safe than sorry.” Miller said. “Look at Atlanta.”

Koran Addo, Heidi Kinchen, Michelle Millhollon, David Mitchell, Robert Stewart, Ben Wallace, and Steven Ward of The Advocate and The Associated Press contributed to this report.