A blizzard that dumped an estimated nine inches of snow in some parts of Bartholomew County brought sparse traffic Wednesday to a crawl and caused numerous traffic accidents and business closures.
Early Wednesday, Bartholomew County officials began advising people to stay off the roads unless necessary. But by 11 a.m., the county upgraded that travel advisory to a travel watch, which banned any vehicle from being on the road except for emergency and work-related reasons.
Columbus Mayor Kristen Brown and County Commissioner President Larry Kleinhenz were reluctant to upgrade the travel watch further because of the impact on businesses that rely on employees to show up. That designation would restrict traffic to emergency vehicles only, such as snow plows, ambulances, fire trucks and police cars.
Officials planned to monitor the weather overnight and check the progress of road crews before deciding what, if any, advisory to put in place for today.
Bartholomew County Sheriff Mark Gorbett said he heard from various, unofficial sources that snowfall totals were erratic across the county. He said nine inches was his best guess for some areas.
“It’s not so much the snowfall totals as the wind,” said Dennis Moats, director of the Bartholomew County Emergency Management Agency. Windy conditions make driving even more treacherous.
The weather system that brought severe winter weather to the central and southern United States hit Columbus shortly after 5:30 a.m. Wednesday, a day when many people were already off work or school because of the Christmas holiday, said Ed Reuter, director of the Bartholomew County Emergency Operations Center.
Reuter said sleet made pavement extremely slick under the snow. He estimated motorist visibility during the early-morning hours outside Columbus city limits at 50 to 75 feet.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the county had experienced more than 50 reported vehicle accidents and slide-offs. Reuter said 35 of them were on Interstate 65, handled by Indiana State Police.
“We find local people know to heed the warning,” he said. “But with so many people traveling for the holidays, a lot of people might not have known what they were getting into.”
Few accidents resulted in injuries. However, Lt. Matt Myers, public information officer for the Columbus Police Department, said a morning accident involving two vehicles at Third and Brown streets required one person to be taken to Columbus Regional Hospital for minor injuries.
Road crews met with mixed success early in the day as they plowed roads, only to see the wind blow snow over them again.
At first, that problem was mainly restricted to outlying areas of Bartholomew County. However, Brown said that by about 11 a.m. the blow-over effect was causing an issue in the city as well, as conditions continued to worsen and the snow depth increased.
She said that’s what persuaded her, Kleinhenz and the Emergency Management Agency to upgrade the travel advisory to a watch.
“It’s crazy,” Bartholomew County Highway Superintendent Dwight Smith said. “The roads are buried again in 30 minutes.”
The city used all 21 of its plow trucks, and the county used its entire fleet of 19, concentrating on main arterial roads in the city and heavily used roads in the county.
Brown said about 1:15 p.m. that the blow-over effect was lessening, allowing city road crews to make more significant headway. But she added that city crews would be out all night Wednesday no matter what.
The snowstorm also gave county officials a chance to test the county’s new emergency notification system, which proved mostly successful but still revealed some problems that need attention.
Moats said the county originally intended to roll out the service in a couple of weeks. However, the blizzard gave all parties involved a reason to move advance those plans.
On the one hand, automatic storm-warning phone calls went out to the vast majority of people who have listed landlines, Moats said. On the other hand, the notification system “timed out” after just an hour and failed to notify every landline owner.
Moats said the program’s timeout window was increased to four hours. Plans are also in the works to allow unlisted landline users and cellphone users to opt into the service.
“This was an early test,” Brown said of the automatic calls. “I’ve had very good feedback.”
The National Weather Service was predicting a snow-free day today with a high near 30 degrees and winds of between 5 and 8 mph. It predicts the next chance for snow will come Friday night.
Reporter Mark Webber contributed to this report.