Bitter temperatures forecast to follow region’s heavy snow

Michael Angelo Chavez has fun while his mother Ana runs a snowblower outside of their Benjamin Hills home on Tuesday.
Michael Angelo Chavez has fun while his mother Ana runs a snowblower outside of their Benjamin Hills home on Tuesday. The Wichita Eagle

The heaviest snows of the season for Wichita and much of Kansas are being followed by some of the coldest temperatures of the winter.

We’ll be fortunate if highs reach double digits in Wichita on Wednesday, forecasters say, with wind chills well below zero.

“It’s going to be bitter cold this week,” National Weather Service meteorologist Andy Kleinsasser said. “Wind chills hovering around minus 10 all day” Wednesday.

Temperatures will be held down by the fresh layer of snow that arrived Tuesday, with as much as a foot reported in parts of the state. In Wichita, 8.7 inches had fallen by 9 p.m. – shattering a record dating to 1897. The old record for Feb. 4 was 5 inches, forecasters said.

Heavy snow was reported in much of the state, with some areas expected to receive a foot or more. By 9 p.m., Enterprise, in Dickson County, reported 13 inches of snow – the most in the state – with 1.5-foot drifts, National Weather Service meteorologist Eric Schminke said.

Assaria, Topeka, Abilene and Wamego each had about a foot, Schminke said. Hutchinson and Mount Hope both had 11.5 inches of snowfall; Derby and Pretty Prairie reported 9.

“Drifting is becoming a problem,” Schminke said Tuesday night.

Lows will slide close to zero early Thursday morning and several degrees below zero early Friday morning in the Wichita area, forecasters say.

“It’s a pretty extended cold shot here” for the next several days, Kleinsasser said. Highs won’t even reach the 20s until this weekend. That’s about half what the normal high is for early February.

Periodic chances for more snow persist the rest of the week, Kleinsasser said.

“It doesn’t look like anything major, but we could pick up an inch or 2 here or there,” he said.

In light of conditions Tuesday, Gov. Sam Brownback declared a state of disaster emergency that authorizes the use of state resources to assist local communities recovering in the storm’s aftermath. Schools and colleges closed. Sedgwick County District Court judges canceled hearings and sent jurors home. A few flights at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport were canceled because of conditions at other airports.

The Kansas Highway Patrol urged residents to stay off the roads because of the heavy snow and whiteout conditions.

Weather-slickened roads were to blame for a wreck that killed two people – Pittsburg resident Judith Harvey, 59, and 67-year-old Helen Prater of Parsons – along U-69 in Crawford County on Tuesday afternoon.

At times, snow fell at a rate of an inch or more per hour. Visibility dropped to a quarter mile or less in areas.

“Travel anywhere is discouraged unless it is absolutely vital,” Bill Guy, director of the Reno County Office of Emergency Management, said Tuesday morning.

“If you’re driving in this weather, you have made the WRONG choice,” Kansas Highway Patrol trooper Ben Gardner, the patrol’s public information officer for north-central Kansas, wrote on Twitter from Salina. “Your safety is at risk.”

‘Stay off the streets’

In front of reporters Tuesday afternoon, Joe Pajor, deputy director of the Department of Public Works and Utilities, discussed a number of precautions that motorists should take and a number of steps the city of Wichita took to deal with the heavy snowfall.

His bottom-line message is: Stay off the streets if you can.

The city has deployed 50 plow trucks and has 100 staff members – many street or sewer maintenance workers – working 12-hour shifts to clear the streets. They are concentrating on primary emergency routes. Plowing began on Wichita’s arterial streets at 6 a.m. Tuesday and will continue until all the streets are clear.

Trucks have been plowing continuously, but they had trouble making progress because of the volume of snow. Many city streets remain snow-packed.

It takes 24 hours for the trucks to clear all 1,500 lane-miles of roads that are on the city’s emergency snow routes, Pajor said earlier Tuesday. The city does not plow the 3,500 lane-miles of side streets, he said.

Going into the snowstorm, Pajor said, the city had 1,200 tons of salt on hand and received a small shipment of 25 more tons this week. That’s enough to treat the city’s emergency routes one time.

Pajor said the city has received 825 tons of the 1,000 tons of salt that it ordered on Dec. 5. He said the city ordered 2,000 more tons the following week but has yet to receive any of that order.

Once the snow is cleared, the city will apply a salt-and-sand mix, but trouble spots are already getting sand. Night-time, when traffic is lighter, is the most productive time for crews.

City ordinance requires businesses and homeowners to keep sidewalks clear and passable, and those who fail to do so are subject to a fine or civil liability. The city normally asks violators to correct the problem before assessing a fine, he said.

Tuesday afternoon, Pajor asked motorists and residents to avoid rapid braking and acceleration, reduce speed, keep appropriate distances between vehicles, stay back at least 100 feet from snow plows, keep sidewalks clear of snow and ice, don’t put snow into the street, stay alert for snow that might obscure traffic signals and don’t assume an obscured signal means you have a green light.

During business hours, call 268-4013 to report an obscured signal; after business hours, call 911.

Minutes after he briefed local reporters on the snow, one of Pajor’s staff members told him he had a call, wanting to know if he could talk. It was NBC Nightly News.

Sedgwick County public works director David Spears said Tuesday his department worked two 12-hour shifts to prepare for snow-packed county roads and bridges. The county’s salt supply is sufficient for now, he said, but he told commissioners Tuesday morning that it could be difficult to secure more supplies later.

Snowpacked roads statewide

The Kansas Department of Transportation on Tuesday urged Kansans not to travel unless absolutely necessary. Roads throughout most of the state were snowpacked, state officials said.

“Basically, now you’re not going to see any pavement hardly on any of the highways,” KDOT spokeswoman Kimberly Qualls said. “You’re just going to see all snow.”

KDOT crews are plowing roads, she said. Once the snow lets up, crews will begin to salt roads.

“But, that again is going to be tough because the temperatures will be so cold,” she said.

KDOT crews will work continuously on 12-hour shifts, Qualls said.

“We’ll definitely have night crews on, and we’ll definitely have crews on tomorrow,” she said.

Officials will evaluate road treatment needs Wednesday night once the storm clears.

Not including the Kansas Turnpike, from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday, the Kansas Highway Patrol statewide responded to eight injury accidents, 48 non-injury accidents and 183 motorist assists or slide-offs, the agency said. Updated totals were not immediately available Tuesday night.

The turnpike was partly or mostly snow-packed but passable.

Despite a morning commute that was “pretty quiet, actually,” according to a Sedgwick County dispatch supervisor, the highway patrol had worked numerous slide-offs on K-96 by midmorning, and vehicles found normally routine intersections in Wichita – such as the roundabout in Delano – challenging to navigate as the snow piled up.

Weather-related calls at Sedgwick County’s 911 dispatch center were somewhat slow as the snow blanketed Wichita. Extra staff members were on hand, though, just in case. Interim 911 director Kim Pennington said about 10 extra staff members were working Tuesday, some throughout the day and some during peak commute times.

From 5 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, dispatchers had taken 180 accident calls, including seven with injuries. During the storm, dispatchers were handling some accident calls as weather updates played on every TV screen in the room. A huge screen of various live cameras from state highways constantly updated in the background.

Pennington said the county decided to bring in extra staff members after a conference call Monday with the National Weather Service.

“We’re ramped up” during the morning and afternoon commutes, she said.

People seem to be heeding advice to stay off the roads, she said.

“This was really well-publicized,” she said of the snowstorm. “I think with all the closings we’ve had, people are staying home.”

AAA Kansas reported receiving 282 service calls across the state between 6 a.m. and 8:15 p.m. Tuesday. That included 79 in Wichita.

Response times were normal – less than 30 minutes in most cases – in Topeka, Wichita and Lawrence, with rural areas taking a bit longer, AAA spokesman Jim Hanni said. Most of the calls – about 40 percent – were for vehicles that skidded off of roads or into snow drifts, he said. At least a third of the calls required towing.

Sledding at College Hill

With streets in and around Wichita snowpacked and slick Tuesday, residents were hunting for or buying new snow shovels and shop owners were using snow blowers to clear storefronts. The Wichita branch of the National Weather Service reported 5 inches by late morning, with snow coming down at the rate of more than an inch an hour at times.

More “snow bursts” arrived Tuesday afternoon, weather service meteorologist Robb Lawson said.

Troy Welty wore shorts while shoveling snow outside Mathew’s Gallery at Douglas and Oliver.

“I wear my shorts year-round,” said Welty, 51, smiling as he took a break from the exertion.

Even in shorts and a T-shirt and no hat, Welty said, he was still sweating as snow collected on top of his head.

About 10 people were sledding down the hill along Douglas at College Hill Park by midmorning Tuesday. A red-cheeked Caleb Blaha, 10, wasn’t letting a broken wrist in a cast keep him from sliding down the hill with his parents and younger brother.

“Every time it snows, we come here,” said Caleb’s mother, Suzy Blaha. She was surprised there weren’t more sledders but expected the number to grow as the wet snow gets packed, making for a faster ride down the hill.

It was a dry, powdery snow that piled up quickly.

At the Williams Hardware store just west of Woodlawn on Central, it was pretty quiet a little after 11 a.m. Tuesday – a sharp contrast to Monday’s pre-storm customer surge.

On Monday morning, the store sold 5,000 pounds of ice melt in two hours, then sold 400 ice-melt shaker jugs in about two hours Monday afternoon, said assistant manager Bruce Anderson. The store also sold a lot of snow shovels, kerosene, lamp oil, propane and tubes of sand that go into car trunks to help the back wheels gain traction.

The store prides itself on getting customers checked out quickly, Anderson said, but the traffic was so busy Monday that the lines of customers were 10 deep.

“Just a lot of pre-storm anxiety,” he said.

By Tuesday, the store was open but quiet as customers “hunkered down for the storm,” Anderson said.

K-254 ‘single-file’

City officials on Monday had welcomed the news of a winter storm without ice, and John Smith sounded a similar refrain as he was putting gas into a red commercial van at the QuikTrip in Park City after driving from El Dorado on K-254 Tuesday morning.

“I was out in the ice the other day, and it was a lot worse than this,” Smith said.

Drivers were going single-file on K-254 because of the conditions, he said. On a day like today, he said, he was glad to be driving a red vehicle.

“I wouldn’t want to be in a white one on a day like this,” he said. “You can’t see them.”

At the United Methodist Open Door Homeless Resource Center near Second and Topeka, the noon crowd was about normal for this time of year, but the facility had about 25 extra meals available because of the weather, said coordinator Glena Fields.

The center is a place where homeless adults can have a safe, comfortable place to spend the day, Fields said.

Paul Adams, 46, was one of those who got to the center early Tuesday morning to beat the heaviest snowfall. Adams has only summer tennis shoes, so his daily goal is to keep his feet as dry as possible. He carries extra socks.

“Some of these guys have steel-toe boots, which really get cold,” Adams said.

It took Adams weeks to obtain some long underwear.

Later Tuesday, he was going to walk over to the Lord’s Diner at Central and Broadway before spending the night at a shelter at Eighth and Market.

“There’s some guys, they just don’t want to come in,” he said. “They’ve got camps or stay under a bridge.”

Airport open

Some flights at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport were canceled Tuesday because of conditions at other airports, but airport operation manager Ty Richardson said flights were otherwise able to come and go as needed.

In bad weather, he said, crews normally try to keep one or two of the airport’s three runways cleared.

“But in conditions like this, we just try to keep one open,” he said as heavy snow continued to fall.

Richardson uses a friction meter on his truck to check the condition of the runways and taxiways. He slams on his brakes on the pavement to check the results, then passes the information along to pilots.

Dealing with the snow is better than the icy conditions that the airport experienced recently, he said.

“That gets expensive,” Richardson said.

The treatment used to put on the runways costs $3 per gallon, he said, adding that the airport used 15,000 to 20,000 gallons to deal with the recent ice.

Contributing: Rick Plumlee, Bryan Lowry, Tim Potter, Deb Gruver, Hurst Laviana and Amy Renee Leiker of The Eagle.

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