Columbus and Phenix City appeared to be a winter wonderland Wednesday, thanks to the 1.2 inches of snow that fell between 6 and 10 p.m. Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service.
But the ice underneath posed a serious threat to area motorists.
“This is one of those days where you keep your fingers crossed, do the best you can do and hope that everything turns out OK,” Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor said.
It is a scene that law enforcement officials on both sides of the Chattahoochee River fear will play out again this morning as temperatures are expected to dip into the upper teens. By 11 a.m., temperatures should climb above freezing, with a high of 40 degrees forecast for later in the afternoon.
Columbus Police Capt. J.D. Hawk has some simple advice for people thinking about driving this morning on frozen roads — don’t.
“These roads are going to be frozen again,” Hawk said. “...I would not suggest that they get out on these roads and try and get into the office in the morning.”
The Muscogee County School District took the advice. Columbus public schools will be closed for a third consecutive day.
Practically every school in the area — including those in Muscogee and Harris counties and Russell County and Phenix City, as well as Columbus State University, Columbus Technical College and Chattahoochee Valley Community College — will be closed again today.
Thursday will be another snow day for non-essential employees of the Columbus Consolidated Government, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said.
She made the decision on the advice of Police Chief Ricky Boren and Public Works Director Pat Biegler, among others.
“It was a close call,” Tomlinson said. “We considered having everybody come in at noon, but Chief Boren said many secondary roads are still completely iced over.”
That’s a good call if you saw what happened Wednesday, Columbus Police Lt. Tony Danford said.
“We were over on Manchester Expressway across from Golden Donut and anytime you moved around, you just started sliding,” Danford said. “You could have skated in it. And it was that way everywhere.”
Just ask Seale, Ala., resident Bob Adkins, who became the self-proclaimed “poster boy for stupid.” He was trying to get to work about 7 a.m. when his Mercury sedan lost traction on U.S. 431 North near Alabama 165. Going about 40 miles per hour, he slid into the median, hit a concrete culvert and tore up the front end of his car.
“If you have to get out there, go half as fast as you think you need to go,” Adkins said. “If it’s not an emergency, stay put.” Adkins was one of the unlucky ones.
In Columbus, police responded to more than 80 traffic accidents, more than 120 calls from stranded motorists and more than 450 weather-related 911 calls from around 4 p.m. Tuesday until late afternoon on Wednesday. There were six minor injuries.
Those numbers would have been greater if not for public works crews on both sides of the river.
Biegler said her department had trucks out spreading sand late Tuesday and all day Wednesday and planned to have crews responding to trouble spots Wednesday night.
“I’m real proud of our Public Works and Parks and Recreation departments and Utility department,” she said. “They have been working together and have done an outstanding job getting the roads passable.”
Phenix City Manager Wallace Hunter had nothing but praise for his Public Works, Parks and Recreation and Utility departments, which worked together to spread sand on roads.
“It was a team and I am proud of them,” Hunter said. “That is one of the reasons some of the main roads were passable.”
Bracing for more
After a day of having 12-15 trucks out at any given time all day Wednesday, Biegler said calls reporting problem areas started to taper off in the middle of the afternoon. But with another hard freeze expected last night, she is preparing for more of the same today.
“We’re expecting in the morning to see more of what we had today,” Biegler said. “It’s been pretty heavy-duty. It’s ugly out there.”
The biggest problems for motorists came on inclines.
“One of the main issues is a lot of people don’t know how to drive in this,” Danford said. “When going up a hill, they hit the brakes and lose momentum, then stop. Once they do that, it’s over.”
The scene played out across the Chattahoochee Valley. At mid-morning on Ala. 165 near the Fort Benning back gate, a dozen cars were stuck on a frozen incline, and one of them was an Alabama State Trooper.
The stretch was temporarily closed, sanded and reopened, Taylor said.
“It was the same thing over here,” said Danford, who supervises the Columbus Police Motor Squad.
Ice slowed down cars Wednesday afternoon along I-185 and Victory Drive near the Fort Benning Main Gate.
Danford said one of the trickiest spots in Columbus was I-185 from Manchester Expressway to Macon Road. The road was treacherous, he said, and the Georgia Department of Transportation had put salt on a frozen patch late Wednesday morning.
“It was a solid sheet of ice,” Danford said.
With a day of practice, the Russell County sheriff and others are bracing for a repeat.
“The roads will be every bit this frozen tonight,” Taylor said. “We are looking at the same scenario tomorrow. If it were my call, I would have everything on lock down until it thaws out.”
J.D. Hawk said if you don’t listen to anything, listen to this: “It isn’t over. It is going to be the same way in the morning.”
But as bad as it was, Danford points out it could have been much worse. And he credits that to many drivers heeding the warnings to stay off the roads and the decisions by schools, businesses and government offices to shut down.
“Ask the people in Birmingham how bad it can get. Ask the people in Atlanta how bad it can get,” Danford said. “We don’t have kids stuck in schools and stuck in buses on the side of a highway, because people made the right decisions.”