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Ice Surprises Motorists, Meteorologists and Road Crews

Brian Kelly
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Workers attempt to clear debris and wrecked cars where an accident involving 20 cars resulted in a pileup on Highway 64/40 during rush hour in St. Louis on February 23, 2011. Early morning freezing rain caught Missouri Department of Transportation officials off guard resulting in an accident that closed the highway, sending 21 people to area hospitals with one person in critical condition. UPI/Bill Greenblatt

Workers attempt to clear debris and wrecked cars where an accident involving 20 cars resulted in a pileup on Highway 64/40 during rush hour in St. Louis on February 23, 2011. Early morning freezing rain caught Missouri Department of Transportation officials off guard resulting in an accident that closed the highway, sending 21 people to area hospitals with one person in critical condition. UPI/Bill Greenblatt

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ST. LOUIS (KMOX)-The ice storm that caused major traffic problems Wednesday morning caught just about everyone by surprise, including meteorologists and highway crews.

The Weather Channel’s Terri Smith says the rain was not part of an organized system,  “There was no low pressure system and no front, “What we’re getting is warm invection from the south and the low-level flow is out or the south and fairly moist and had enough moisture to override the colder temperatures at the surface to generate some light rain.”

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She says under those conditions, predicting when and where it would begin falling, was like hitting a moving target. “You’re trying to time in not only when the moisture is going to arrive but sufficient enough moisture from the cloud all the way  to the ground to allow for the precipitation to make its way to the surface. And on top of that, you’re trying to figure out just what the temperatures are going to be doing.”

She says it goes to show that, “As good as the science has become, our understanding of it still not 100% perfect.”

Missouri Transportation Department officials hire their own weather service.  Assistant District Engineer Tom Blair says their forecasters called at about 4:20 am, warning that there was ‘a chance of possible freezing rain’.

Blair says they immediately called in the crews working pothole repair and had them convert their trucks into salt trucks.

They also contacted many of their employees, who quickly showed up and started loading salt into trucks and hit the roads.

Blair tells KMOX the crews did the best they could, “By 5 am, when I  get pretty much the full entourage of trucks on the road, as history shows, there had already been some horrific vehicular crashes.”

He says crews were able to get to the bridges pretty quickly, “Unfortunately in some cases the incidents occurred either before or immediately right after they were there and the salt hadn’t had a chance to do its job.”

Blair says the stretch of I-64 near Vandaventer, the site of a 26 car pileup, is one crews know to hit right away, but he can’t confirm if they had treated it before the accident.

Blair says MoDOT can’t afford to have crews sitting around waiting for these events when they’re not predicted and because it was unexpected, they didn’t have a chance to pre-treat the roads.

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