Crews focus on year's first storm

Students walk home against the wind down 12th Street on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020. According to WGEM, the area will still be feeling strong winds up to 35 mph with low temperatures and possible snow on Friday. | H-W Photo/Katelyn Metzger
Katelyn Metzger 1|
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jan. 10, 2020 12:01 am

HANNIBAL, Mo. -- Street and highway crews have watched as the first winter storm of 2020 was approaching.

"It looks like we'll get quite a bit of rain, especially to the south. There may be a chance of flash flooding. Then starting Friday night or Saturday there may be a little bit of ice and a couple of inches of snow," said Brian Untiedt, area engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation's Northeast District.

Those details were known Wednesday afternoon and Untiedt said MoDOT crews were preparing snow plows and making plans to keep highways open in 17 counties stretching from the Missouri River to the Iowa border.

"We have 165 trucks to take care of the roads, and we have about 10,000 lane miles that we plow," Untiedt said.

That's not enough trucks to continuously work all the highways. MoDOT instead prioritizes the most heavily traveled routes, such as U.S. 61, U.S. 36 and U.S. 24 to keep them from becoming snow packed. Other routes are plowed as often as trucks are available -- usually at least once every 12 to 24 hours.

By Thursday morning, WGEM Meteorologist Chelsea Smith said the approaching storm's track could make a lot of difference in snowfall and severity.

In early forecast models, the snow accumulations were expected to be at least 2 inches. However, snows of 5 inches or more were possible if there's just a small change in the storm's track. And ice could make things a lot worse.

"We're looking at a few areas that may see a thin layer of ice overnight Friday into Saturday morning," Smith said.

"If it creates black ice, then that's hard to see. If we get snow on top of it, that will be even more hazardous."

Expected low temperatures around 20 degrees would help road crews keep things moving.

Untiedt said MoDOT relies on its equipment, people and materials. Those materials include salt, cinders and sand.

"Salt stops being effective at melting once the temperatures get into the teens or single digits," Untiedt said.

Abrasives, such as cinders and sand help, when they're mixed with salt, to penetrate snow or ice and provide some traction. Occasionally beet juice remains effective as a melting agent at lower temperatures than salt. It also sticks to the ice or snow.

County officials face different issues as they try to keep gravel roads clear. A 2-inch snow rarely is a major problem if there's no ice to contend with. But a 5-inch snowfall could leave snow plow crews with lots of work.

The bigger issue may be flooding in low-lying areas if 5 inches of rain falls by Saturday.

The Illinois Emergency Management Agency said residents should be ready for the potential for flash flooding and accumulating snow.

"Given the current ground saturation, any time we see a forecast of 4 inches of rain, and the duration of this weather event, we see a threat for flash flooding," said Acting IEMA Director Alicia Tate-Nadeau. "This is a good reminder that anywhere it rains, it can flood. We want everyone to be aware of current conditions and be prepared to follow local instructions if watches or warnings are issued."