Truckers sit, wait for highways to thaw

Lucky Nguyen sat inside his big rig mid-morning Wednesday bound for Dallas, his progress as frozen as the Interstate 10 overpass a stone’s throw away from the parking lot on College Drive where the long-haul trucker was parked.

Nguyen was bringing a load of cantaloupes and honeydews from Florida but had been stranded in Baton Rouge since 12:30 a.m. Wednesday.

“I don’t know how long they’ll be closed,” Nguyen, 43, said, pointing to the interstate.

In the big rig next to Nguyen, Kevin Sidhu, 28, shared Nguyen’s frustration at being stopped cold, but was enjoying the brief respite.

“I’ve been driving for six years and never seen anything like this,” said Sidhu, who was bound for Los Angeles with a load of Florida cantaloupes.

An unusual winter storm that dropped temperatures to a few degrees above record lows and pelted southeast Louisiana with a mix of freezing rain and sleet forced authorities to shut down swaths of the state’s cross-country highway grid and focus on maintaining a priority route through the state.

Large sections of I-12 and I-10 between Lafayette and New Orleans were down Tuesday and Wednesday along with several other major highways. I-10 between Lafayette and U.S. 61 in Ascension Parish reopened Thursday evening as did the stretch of I-12 between Baton Rouge and Robert.

Mississippi River bridges between Baton Rouge and New Orleans were closed to traffic or limited to one lane in each direction, though some began opening Wednesday afternoon.

A 2005 study conducted by the states on the I-10 corridor found that the freight carried on the interstate highway had a $1.38 trillion annual impact.

That’s a lot of truck traffic, and many truckers were halted Wednesday as Nguyen and Sidhu were, with 18-wheelers sitting in parking lots or lined up along Airline Highway near I-12 waiting for roads to reopen.

Brennan Romero, a vice president with Bengal Transportation Services of Geismar, said his company president took their drivers off local roads Wednesday morning because of safety concerns with the ice.

“From a safety standpoint, we just didn’t want to put our drivers in that situation,” he said.

Romero and others involved in the trucking business said it seems that northern states, more accustomed to this kind of freezing weather, are better able to keep the roads open.

“As soon as the snow starts falling, the plows come out. They see it coming, and they prepare,” said Michael Andres, an 18-year truck-driving veteran. “Down here, they don’t have ice evacuation routes, just hurricane evacuation routes.”

Andres was parked Wednesday with dozens of other truckers at Lucky Louie’s Truck Stop-Café near the U.S. 190 bridge in West Baton Rouge Parish.

Joe Rose, a truck driver from Baker who was trying to get to New Orleans, agreed.

Up north, “It’s a little bit safer because they have the machines to move the ice and snow off the roads,” said Rose, 44.

Andres said he saw several accidents and a few jack-knifed 18-wheelers Tuesday night that helped him decide to spend the night in Jennings before heading east to Baton Rouge.

Andres was driving from Laredo, Texas, to Chattanooga, Tenn., with business supplies and figured once he got north of Jackson, Miss., he would be in the clear of the bad weather.

Though the state has many trucks with equipment to spread salt and sand, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development does not own a single snow plow, said Dustin Annison, DOTD spokesman.

In contrast, in snowy Minnesota, where driving in freezing and snowy weather is a part of daily life, that state’s Department of Transportation owns 800 snow plows, each outfitted with equipment to spread sand and salt, a spokesman said.

Louisiana’s many long bridges and elevated sections of interstate highway have proven a major ice concern as the chill wind has kept the bridge decks frozen longer than they might have been if they were in contact with the earth.

In the Minneapolis-St.Paul area, the Mississippi River divides the Twin Cities and has 16 bridges crossing it.

“The bridges stay open,” said Kevin Gutknecht, Minnesota Department of Transportation director of communications.

He said crews keep the bridges covered with sand and salt. He said some bridges have their own systems that send out de-icing fluids when conditions warrant it. The only way that state’s highway department closes bridges and roads is if the blizzard conditions reduce visibility.

“If the plow operators can’t see, then we pull them off the roads,” Gutknecht said.

At the same time, Gutknecht said, Minnesota doesn’t have 24-mile-long bridges like the Causeway, and even the Minnesota resident knew that the weather Louisiana is seeing is far out of the norm for the Bayou State.

“It makes sense to me,” Gutknecht said of Louisiana’s road troubles. “When’s the last time this occurred in Louisiana?”

State Police said Wednesday they expected I-10 to open sometime Thursday.