WEST MEMPHIS, Arkansas — Drivers were stranded overnight behind jackknifed tractor-trailers and stalled passenger cars on icy roads, and the slippery conditions made cleanup dangerous Tuesday.
Southbound Interstate 55 was backed up from Interstate 40 to near the Missouri border, a distance of 70 miles, and I-40 was snarled in the 40-mile stretch between Forrest City and West Memphis, especially westbound traffic.
Conditions were expected to improve later in the day, but Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department spokesman Randy Ort said it is no easy task to clear the roads when they're packed with ice.
"We'll get a jackknifed rig moved and traffic will move and then something else will happen," Ort said.
Gov. Mike Beebe said state troopers and the National Guard were checking with motorists to ensure there were no health emergencies and Game and Fish Commission employees were ferrying fuel to motorists who had none. His office said construction zones along both highways contributed to the traffic tie-ups and referred questions to the highway department, which is an independent state agency.
With temperatures in the teens and single digits overnight, crews were limited in what they could accomplish, Ort said, noting that road salt is ineffective when temperatures drop below 22 degrees. There was plenty of ice left from a winter storm that pelted the region Sunday into Monday.
Traffic on I-55 heading into Arkansas from Memphis, Tennessee, moved at a crawl Tuesday morning. Tractor-trailers and passenger vehicles were backed up into the city as they inched their way toward the Mississippi River bridge.
On Interstate 40 from Tennessee into Arkansas, where the speed limit is 65 mph, traffic edged along at 5 mph.
Sandra Lockhart Roberts said her car had moved little more than a mile in 45 minutes.
"It's a total inconvenience," she said. "It's so stressful. Stressful. I have to calm down. Patience is a virtue."
Trucker Daniel Rayford, 38, driving a bright yellow DHL semi to Arkansas, said it took him about nine hours to drive from Little Rock to Memphis on Monday. The trip usually takes two hours.
"It's crazy," Rayford said in West Memphis, about 130 miles east of Little Rock. "To get to Little Rock from here, from what I saw last night, I might get there sometime tonight and it's 11:15 a.m."
Rayford said he'd planned to cross the I-55 bridge into Arkansas but saw the backup and took I-40 instead.
Ort said state police had to stop what modest movement there was on the highways so tow trucks could reach disabled vehicles, further clogging the highways.
"People get very frustrated when they don't see us working on the roadway," Ort said. "If they're not moving then we can't move. We understand their frustration."
Some motorists told The Blytheville Courier and Jonesboro television station KAIT that they had spent the night in their vehicles.
"We're doing everything we can," Ort said. "Sometimes that means waking up drivers when they can get moving again."
Dozens of tractor-trailers lined up on Interstate 55, and The Courier said hotels were full. Many truckers got off the highway and parked at a nearby Walmart or at Lowe's.
Associated Press writer Chuck Bartels contributed to this story from Little Rock, Arkansas