Snow, ice caught officials off guard

Emergency officials assist motorists stranded on McIngvale Road last Friday during the region's snow and ice storm.

Mike Lee\DTT

The snow that blanketed DeSoto County with between two to four inches of the white stuff caught many residents and transportation officials by surprise on Friday morning.

As a result, many roads and Interstate 55 did not receive pre-treatment for icy conditions, causing some slick surfaces for motorists in the early-going.

DeSoto County Sheriff's Department Chief Deputy Macon Moore lamented the fact that highways and byways remained untreated. As a result, deputies were inundated with wrecks and accidents during the height of the storm.

"At certain points, we were overwhelmed," Moore said, adding the Sheriff's Department worked a total of 59 accidents.

"There were several accidents in which the people involved just swapped information," Moore said. "We didn't have enough units to make it around to all of them."

Moore said it seems that neighboring Tennessee was more prepared for the storm.

"I'm just comparing the way they (roads) appeared in Tennessee," Moore said. "It appeared the roads were in much better shape than they were here. We know it all depends on the forecast. They don't always pan out. Hopefully they will do a much better job next time."

The Interstate system in Mississippi, including I-55 and other major roads and bridges, do come under MDOT purview as to treatment ahead of inclement weather, said Jason Scott, Public Information Officer for MDOT in Jackson. Responses are based on weather predictions, he said.

"The forecasts we received, right up to late Sunday night, didn't call for a lot of precipitation," with a chance of less than 50 percent, said Scott. Equipment and personnel were on standby, but a massive, countywide response was never warranted, based on weather predictions, he said. However, bridges got some attention, he said.

MDOT did send out press releases warning of inclement weather late in the day on Thursday but by then many motorists had already made travel plans for the following day.

"Whenever we do hear of cold conditions coming in, our major concern is bridges, because that's where ice can form due to cold air underneath, so there was some pre-treatment of bridges in DeSoto County," said Scott.

Scott said that overall on Friday, "across North Mississippi including the Tupelo area, we didn't have a whole lot of problems, precipitation was spotty and patchy." MDOT's main problem that day, he said, was in Jackson, where unexpected rain washed off liquid pre-treatment of roads and bridges and then froze.

DeSoto Supervisors Mark Gardner of Southaven and Lee Caldwell of Nesbit praised the response of county crews overseen by Road Manager Andy Swims, and offered some defense of MDOT.

"Our county equipment was out there all day and all night, working on county-maintained roads and clearing them," said Gardner. Of MDOT, he said "they did the best they could, based on what they knew."

"Our road crews were on top of it," said Caldwell. She added that board members and crews were out and about at 4 a.m. Friday, "and some even earlier."

There were concerns, however, said Caldwell, owing to the icy road conditions early on main roads making it impossible for doctors, nurses and emergency personnel from getting through.

The county, MDOT and Northern Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert will do a debriefing on the situation, "so we can assess what happened and look at how to improve weather response in the future," said Caldwell.

Swims said MDOT stepped up its response later on Friday; he noted state crews around noon on Goodman Road.

The county department's central shop and three satellite offices were busy all weekend, "and we even had some crews out this morning to treat a few areas," Swims said Monday. He said roads under constant shade will stay iced longer than those exposed to the sun.

"We spend a lot of time trying to be prepared for inclement weather, by having the (de-icing and road-gripping) materials we need at all our facilities, and having the vehicles and equipment we need in good working order," said Swims. Still, he said, "we have 650 miles of roads that are county-maintained, and it's impossible to be everywhere at the same time to deal with precipitation, especially when it's still falling."

So any effective response takes time, and it's aided if motorists will stay off the road as much as possible, said Swims. Caldwell said she's aware that folks tried to stay home.

Gardner said there were serious problems on I-55: "I heard that the Interstate was shut down for awhile Friday because of 18-wheelers that couldn't get up the incline south of Hernando. But hindsight is always 20/20, and based on the weather model that MDOT depended on, they didn't anticipate what we got.

"Unfortunately, there were some accidents," said Gardner.

"Fortunately," said Caldwell, "the Good Lord let things pretty much clear up the next day."

"There have been times in the past where MDOT responded aggressively to forecasts, and the predicted conditions didn't materialize," said Gardner. This was a case where the weather pulled a rare surprise, he said, adding that it looked like DeSoto was under a "strip" of icy conditions that didn't hit as hard north or south.

"We have a lot of respect for MDOT and Commissioner Tagert, because they have a big job," said Gardner.

On Friday about 9:40 a.m., amid traffic accidents and snarls in DeSoto, MDOT in a media release reported ice on roads and bridges in the county and several others in North and Central Mississippi, and that MDOT first-responders began pretreating roads and bridges on Thursday and were working to keep them passable. Motorists needed to use extreme caution when traveling through the affected counties, said MDOT spokesman Michael Flood.

On Friday afternoon, MDOT sent an email to news media stating that ice had been reported in DeSoto and some 40 other counties.

Henry Bailey is Contributing Writer for the DeSoto Times-Tribune. Community Editor Robert Lee Long contributed to this story.

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