December 20, 2012

City apologizes for slick streets in Wichita area

City officials aren’t a lot happier than their constituents after a morning drive Thursday that was as hazardous as they can remember.

City officials aren’t a lot happier than their constituents after a morning drive Thursday that was as hazardous as they can remember.

The morning rush hour was marked by ice-coated, unmaintained city streets, especially north-south city streets, that slowed drivers to a 10 mph crawl, producing a rash of accidents and raising the ire of the city’s leadership.

“We do apologize to our citizens,” Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said, an apology that the city followed up on on Twitter just before 10 a.m.

“This is not consistent with our standard of street care,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We got caught by a strange turn in the weather.”

Here’s what happened, according to Brewer and Layton:

City crews were mobilized overnight, ready to maintain intersections, hills and curves in anticipation of a light dusting of snow. Instead, the snow was preceded by rain.

At 3 a.m., the red alert dimmed as temperatures remained above freezing and streets remained slushy.

“We didn’t think it was going to be necessary,” Layton said.

But between 6 and 7 a.m., temperatures dropped and the streets flash-froze, Layton said, catching city crews by surprise.

“Everything just froze up,” he said. “So we started at 6:30 a.m. with first-shift personnel treating the usual places.

“It just caught us before the rush hour,” Layton said. “We didn’t anticipate this happening.”

But what happened isn’t unusual for this time of year in southern Kansas, according to the National Weather Service.

“It seems more often than not, with early season events here we tend to get that,” meteorologist Andy Kleinsasser said. “The ground temperatures are still relatively warm. When we get a little bit of snow, the snow isn’t heavy enough to cover the ground.”

The snow melts when it hits the warm ground, and when cold air and strong winds arrive, they freeze the moisture and glaze surfaces. Winds of 35 miles an hour or more that were blowing as rush hour arrived fueled the transition.

“If snowfall rates had been hellacious, we probably could have avoided it,” Kleinsasser said.

But only an inch fell around most of Wichita – though some areas received about 2 inches, Kleinsasser said – and it didn’t fall fast enough to avoid the flash freeze.

Tyler Road south of Kellogg “was an ice rink this morning,” Kleinsasser said. “If you touched your brakes, you were done for.”

Brewer said there won’t be any more guesses this winter: City crews will be instructed to err on the side of caution.

“The next time, we’re just going to have the guys launch and get started salting the streets,” the mayor said. “It will cost us a little more, but even if the streets are just slushy, let’s avoid this worst-case scenario going forward.”

About an inch of snow fell in Wichita overnight. Dozens of accidents were reported as the morning commute intensified just after 7 a.m., a Sedgwick County dispatch supervisor said.

“They were all ‘speed’ – driving too fast for conditions,” Kansas Highway Patrol Lt. Roger Baughman said. “The first storm always seems to be a learning curve.”

The Emergency Accident Reporting Plan was activated for the city of Wichita at about 6:30 a.m., then canceled at about 9 a.m. because few accidents were occurring, a dispatch supervisor said. Almost immediately, though, there was another spike in accidents, prompting the EARP to be reactivated shortly before 10 a.m. It was canceled again shortly after 11 a.m.

The highway patrol responded to 87 crashes, 44 service calls and six injury accidents from midnight until noon on Thursday, about three times the normal figures for that timeframe.

Two KHP vehicles were struck by cars that lost control on the icy streets Thursday morning – one on K-254 just east of Rock Road, and the other later on K-96 near the West Street exit. The trooper on K-254 was in the ditch working an accident and not in his vehicle when it was struck, Baughman said.

An inspector was in the KHP truck parked on the inside shoulder when it was side-swiped on K-96. Neither trooper was injured.

“There were a lot of close calls,” Baughman said.

One person was killed in a three-vehicle collision during blizzard conditions in western Kansas on Wednesday night, the highway patrol reported. The collision occurred at about 8 p.m. about 13 miles east of Dodge City on U.S. 50.

A vehicle with a trailer was traveling west when it went across the center of the highway, the patrol reported. An eastbound vehicle struck the trailer and a second, westbound vehicle struck debris in the highway.

Southbound lanes of the Kansas Turnpike were shut down completely north of Cassoday for a short time early Thursday afternoon after an accident.

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