Crews ask for drivers’ help in clearing roads
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Transportation workers were fighting on two fronts Tuesday to clear state roads — one against the elements and the other against human folly.
The remnants of Hurricane Sandy made a mess of the state's highway system Tuesday. Blizzard conditions in higher elevations and heavy rains and winds in other areas wreaked havoc across all 10 Division of Highways districts.
With the storm expected to linger over the state through Wednesday afternoon, transportation officials are asking for some cooperation so they can clear roads as soon as possible.
Department of Transportation spokeswoman Carrie Bly said anyone who doesn't need to drive should stay home.
"At this stage of the storm, it really is a partnership," Bly said. "We're doing all we can to clear the roads and working diligently, but we need the public to weigh whether they need to go out or not."
The department dealt with several major road closures Tuesday morning.
A 45-mile section of Interstate 68 in Maryland and West Virginia was closed late Monday after several tractor-trailers and other vehicles were stranded in heavy snow. The road was closed for more than 12 hours Tuesday.
Although officials asked drivers to stay off the roads Monday, Transportation department spokesman Brent Walker said several tractor-trailers did not heed the warnings.
"We have trucks continue to chance it," Walker said. "Then they jackknife and get stuck."
Once that happens, highways crews have to stop snow removal and ice treatment activities to help clear blocked traffic. As they do that, snow continues to accumulate and make driving conditions worse.
"That's why we ask everybody to limit your driving or stay off the road completely so we can get out there and treat these roads," Walker said.
Transportation officials closed a portion of U.S. 19 from Interstate 79 in Braxton County to Summersville about 11 a.m. Tuesday. Only four-wheel-drive vehicles were allowed.
The ban was to keep road crews focused on treating roads rather than dealing with more crashes.
Sections of U.S. 219 and U.S. 250 in Randolph, Tucker and Barbour counties also were closed Tuesday morning.
The Department of Transportation received numerous reports of crashes on Interstates 77, 79 and 64. Some led to temporary shutdowns as emergency crews and tow trucks responded.
When the snow started to let up or turn to rain around 10 a.m., it seemed to give drivers a false sense of security, West Virginia Turnpike Director Greg Barr said.
"When daylight came today, it was like all of a sudden traffic started going faster and faster," Barr said. "People were just starting to drive entirely too fast, and that's where we started to run into trouble."
After responding to a few crashes along the Turnpike, officials decided to enforce an advisory speed limit of 55 mph along the 88-mile corridor.
"We'll probably leave that up through this evening and into the morning," Barr said, "just to remind people that the conditions are still such that the weather can change completely, winds are still in effect, and the blizzard warnings stand through (Wednesday)."
Downed trees and power lines caused closures of roads in Putnam, Lincoln, Barbour, Braxton, Lewis, Upshur and Webster counties.
Walker said the focus is to keep primary roads clear through the storm and deal with any blocked secondary roads as resources become available.
Division of Highways District 7 requested additional equipment to clear trees and lines from roads in Barbour, Braxton, Gilmer, Lewis, Upshur and Webster counties.
Another battle fought by officials Tuesday played out on social media.
At some point during the morning, people on Facebook and Twitter began sharing a photo of vehicles supposedly stranded in more than a foot of snow on the Turnpike.
While the photo was labeled as "10 minutes ago" when it was originally posted, it was actually from the 2009 winter storm that left motorists stranded on the Turnpike.
Parkways Authority and state highways offices were inundated with calls from concerned residents who saw the photo and were worried about conditions and backups.
"Like we didn't have enough to deal with, people are re-inventing past events," Barr said.
"We've tried to stay on top of it," Walker said. "Whether it's been accidents or important information, we've been putting it out over our social media channels."
The Parkways Authority also maintains a Twitter page at www.twitter.com/WVParkways.
Along with the snow, officials said heavy rains would pose a risk today. The chance of rock slides and road flooding will increase in rain-soaked areas.
Amy Shuler Goodwin, spokeswoman for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's office, said swift-water rescue teams are in place in the Eastern Panhandle to deal with flooding problems. High-water trucks also have been readied.
As conditions change, drivers can look up road conditions at www.transportation.wv.gov.
Contact writer Jared Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5148.