Roads, highways improving but remain treacherous

A motorist looks at the damage to his car after he lost control on a snow-packed 21st street near Woodlawn Wednesday afternoon.  No one was injured in the one-car mishap.  (Feb. 5, 2014)
A motorist looks at the damage to his car after he lost control on a snow-packed 21st street near Woodlawn Wednesday afternoon. No one was injured in the one-car mishap. (Feb. 5, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

While road conditions may be improving in Wichita and around the state, drivers can expect plenty of slick conditions Thursday and into the weekend.

Three people, including a Moundridge man, have died from injuries sustained on the state’s roads since the storm rolled through Kansas this week.

Conditions were still bad enough that some area school districts – including Wichita, Goddard, Maize and Valley Center – canceled school Thursday for a third straight day.

Others – Andover, Augusta, Derby and Mulvane school districts and Wichita State, Friends and Newman universities, among them – opted to hold class.

Vehicles sliding off the freeways that resemble ice rinks have been the biggest problem. And with temperatures not expected to break freezing until the middle of next week, drivers need to remain cautious, authorities said.

At one point during Wednesday’s commute, troopers were working more than a dozen accidents on the freeways that ring Wichita.

“We’re still dealing with snow-packed roads and people are sliding off because of that,” said Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Gary Warner, whose area includes Wichita. “Most people are driving too fast.

“I realize with the sun shining and no moisture coming down, people are thinking, ‘Yeah, I can get out and drive.’ And they can, but they need to be mindful it’s still slick.”

Wednesday’s daytime high in Wichita was 10 degrees, and it’s only forecast to reach 11 Thursday, when wind chills will be below zero, said Kevin Darmofal, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wichita.

Friday’s temperature is expected to hit 21 and Saturday should reach 30, he added.

No more heavy snow is expected, but Darmofal said the Wichita area could see a dusting to half an inch at different times over the next week.

“Highways are definitely improving,” KHP Lt. Josh Kellerman said of statewide conditions, “but we’re going to be dealing with this for the next several days.

“I’d say Thursday morning will be another interesting day.”

To help clear Wichita’s streets, the city is still running 100 employees in 50 trucks 24 hours a day in 12-hour shifts, said Joe Pajor, deputy director of public works and utilities.

Crews began clearing secondary streets after plowing and sanding the primary ones by Wednesday afternoon.

They are putting down sand only to help with traction, he said. They are not using much salt.

There are two reasons for that, Pajor said: They have only about 1,900 tons of salt on hand as it is, and when temperatures are in single digits salt becomes ineffective.

The one bit of good news, Pajor said, is that with temperatures as cold as they are, there is less chance of snow melting and then creating spot hazards when it refreezes.

These conditions will probably persist for a few days because cold and cloud cover will prevent melting, Pajor said. That means city streets – even those treated with sand – will remain snow-packed.

As a result, motorists will need to continue to leave early, slow down early for intersections, and watch out for any slick spots, he said.

Wichita Mid-Continent Airport’s flights “operated pretty close to normal” Wednesday, spokeswoman Valerie Wise said. The airport stayed open with at least one runway kept clear during the storm, but delays at other airports caused some flight cancellations and delays in Wichita.

Over a 24-hour period from 6 a.m. Tuesday to 6 a.m. Wednesday, the highway patrol statewide had worked 129 crashes that caused property damage; 12 injury accidents; and two fatal crashes.

Richard Lynn Conquest, 58, of Moundridge, became the third traffic death when he died overnight Wednesday at Via Christi Hospital St. Francis in Wichita. He was involved in a two-car accident Tuesday morning just north of Hesston on I-135, according to a Kansas Highway Patrol report.

Conquest was driving a Ford pickup north on I-135 shortly before 8 a.m. Tuesday. He lost control on the snow-packed highway and spun through the median and into the southbound lanes, the highway patrol report said.

His vehicle was struck in the left lane by a southbound Chevrolet pickup driven by a 54-year-old Moundridge woman. She sustained injuries that were not life-threatening.

Two people died from injuries sustained in a two-vehicle crash that happened about 2 p.m. Tuesday on U.S. 69 just south of Pittsburg. One of the cars went out of control on the slick highway, a highway patrol report said.

As of 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, AAA had received 850 calls for road service since the storm began Tuesday, spokesman Jim Hanni said. AAA took 366 calls Wednesday, including 99 from the Wichita area.

Of the 557 calls logged by Thursday evening, almost a quarter were from the Wichita area, Hanni said.

There were signs that Topeka was creeping toward normal: Gov. Sam Brownback’s office announced in an e-mail that state agency offices will resume their normal operations Thursday morning after being closed Wednesday for a second straight day.

The state Emergency Operations Center returned to normal operations Wednesday afternoon and National Guard teams that have been standing by to assist Wichita and other cities with emergency medical and transport aid were released from that mission at noon on Wednesday. No counties requested the Guard’s assistance.

But as of Wednesday afternoon, Sharon Watson, spokeswoman for the Adjutant General’s Office, said that no requests had been made by local governments.

“At this point we’re not getting any reports of any significant damages that communities or county governments would’ve received as a result of the snowstorm,” said Sharon Watson, spokeswoman for the Adjutant General’s Office.

The Adjutant General’s Office wants Kansans to still take precautions even though snow has stopped falling.

“We still need to remember that we’re in the danger zone,” Watson said. She said that cold temperatures present a high risk of hypothermia, especially for people shoveling snow.

“Sometimes we focus on the snowfall and the traffic challenges that come about,” Watson said, “but the cold can be as deadly as that.”

Contributing: Rick Plumlee, Roy Wenzl, Bryan Lowry and Amy Renee Leiker of The Eagle

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