An unexpected layer of black ice caught motorists, public safety officials and school administrators by surprise.
While more than a dozen accidents were investigated over a three-hour period Wednesday morning, none resulted in serious injuries, Bartholomew County Emergency 911 Operations Director Todd Noblitt said.
But it did cause a number of school districts in south central Indiana, including the Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp., Wednesday morning to call a two-hour delay with little notice before classes were scheduled to begin. Then just before 9 a.m. Superintendent Shawn Price announced that classes for the Hope-based district would be canceled for the entire day.
Nearby, Brown County School Corp. and Waynesburg Christian School also called off classes.
More than 100 schools throughout Indiana announced delayed starts due to the weather, with some in Marion County closed for the day.
Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., however, went ahead with classes on schedule Wednesday.
Superintendent Jim Roberts said school officials began considering whether to delay between 4 and 5 a.m., and decided at 4:45 a.m. that weather conditions would allow the buses to go out on schedule.
Because of the size of the school district, the corporation’s self-imposed timeline to send buses out is 5:30 a.m., in order to get classes started on time, he said. By about 6 a.m., school officials determined that roads conditions were more challenging than first thought. However, they decided not to return students home or call the buses back in at that point.
Second-guessing himself, Roberts said he would probably have called for the two-hour delay if he knew earlier what he learned after 6 a.m.
When weather changes or worsens after the buses go out, or during a school day when an early dismissal for students may be contemplated, school officials have to make some tough calls, he said.
“It’s the nature of the beast,” he said.
The overnight development of invisibly slick roads and streets seemed to catch most everyone off guard, Noblitt said.
While such surprises usually happen three to four times every winter, they don’t often happen just before heavy traffic periods begin on a work and school day, said Bryan Burton, Columbus’ director of public works.
For most of Tuesday, road crews and emergency responders were kept on alert that slick conditions could develop at any time, Burton said.
“But then nothing happened and we let our guard down,” Burton said.
Shortly after 10 p.m. Tuesday, Bartholomew County Highway engineer Danny Hollander noticed that an icy mist was falling as he was driving. However, temperatures were still above freezing at that time, and there was no indication of ice sticking to surfaces, he said.
“The temperature suddenly dropped more than expected, and the result was slick roads,” Burton said.
The first weather-related accident, which occurred at Old Nashville Road and West State Road 46 in western Bartholomew County, was reported at 5:45 a.m. Wednesday, according to emergency dispatch records.
As two more mishaps were investigated at about 6 a.m., patrolling deputies began confirming that many roads had become dangerously slick, Noblitt said.
Both city and county crews were immediately sent out to begin treating the icy pavements, Burton and Hollander said.
Although the E911 director said no one area was hit harder than another, there were specific places where multiple traffic problems were reported.
In Columbus, they include the Tipton Lakes area, the intersection of 25th Street and Central Avenue, and the vicinity of 10th Street and Marr Road, Burton said.
Outside of Columbus, public safety personnel were called to incidents at U.S. 31 South near Elizabethtown and County Road 600S in southwest Bartholomew County, Hollander said.
While some residents complained to the county highway department about untreated black ice south of the U.S. 31 roundabout, Hollander explained that the highway is maintained by the Indiana Department of Transportation.
Slick roads weren’t just a problem in Bartholomew County. Multiple crashes were reported throughout central Indiana at the same time. The National Weather Service attributed most of the problem in central Indiana to patchy freezing drizzle mixed with light snow showers. It also warned that afternoon commute driving conditions could be poor, especially on untreated secondary roads.