Everyone having an ice time?
Storm encases city in quarter-inch coating
A rare ice storm brought the Grand Valley to a sliding halt on Monday morning, resulting in drivers stranded on Interstate 70 for hours, car accidents, flight cancellations, delays and closures for schools and businesses.
Driving conditions likely will remain hazardous, as more precipitation is in the forecast for the next several days.
For the first time ever, the National Weather Service issued an ice storm warning for Grand Junction and the I-70 corridor from Utah to Rifle, after more than a quarter of an inch of ice accumulated in sheets across the valley. The freezing rain, a rarity in Grand Junction, resulted after precipitation fell and warmer air temperatures prevented it from becoming snow, but ground temperatures froze the rain into a coating of ice.
Though inversions, which keep cold air trapped in the Grand Valley, are usually moved out by storms that bring in moisture, that’s not what happened after the last snowstorm in the valley, and that contributed to the freezing rain situation, said meteorologist Tom Renwick.
“This time that cold air was cold enough that it didn’t get scoured out,” Renwick said.
Freezing rain isn’t a very common weather phenomenon in the valley, and Renwick said the last time an advisory was issued for freezing rain was in December 2013. He said the office tends to issue advisories about freezing rain in Grand Junction about once every three years.
The Weather Service ended up extending its ice storm warning through Monday afternoon, as freezing temperatures persisted. Renwick said staffers spent much of the day advising emergency managers, transportation officials and law enforcement on conditions.
Law enforcement agencies issued accident alerts, asking motorists involved in non-injury crashes to exchange information and report their accidents to police within 48 hours, rather than calling police immediately.
Grand Valley Transit suspended bus service for part of the day Monday, and flights were grounded for three hours at Grand Junction Regional Airport. People planning to fly out of the airport should call first or check on social media as airport officials will put out word of delays there, airport spokeswoman Jodi Doney said.
Between 5 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday, emergency dispatchers fielded 929 calls, Davidson said. In the same 11-hour period, 74 wrecks were reported, not including those received by the Colorado State Patrol or minor non-injury crashes that dispatchers would have asked drivers to report online or within two days.
“That’s close to what we would typically take in a full 24-hour period,” Davidson said. Among those was a report that Grand Junction police handled when a semi truck jack-knifed and collided with a Colorado Department of Transportation snow plow at about 9:30 a.m. on I-70 near the 26½ Road overpass, Davidson said.
CDOT officials said treating the roads coated in ice was a tricky situation, because the granular salts used to melt the ice and provide traction were easily washed away with the freezing rain.
Emergency responders also helped with numerous reports of ice-related injuries, and Davidson said the dispatch center received 22 calls for help in the first few hours of the storm.
St. Mary’s Hospital spokeswoman Teri Cavanagh said the hospital saw a “significant increase” in emergency department admissions compared to an average day.
Most admissions were orthopedic, a result of “slips and trips,” Cavanagh said.
Community Hospital’s emergency room nearly doubled the number of emergency patients by 1:30 p.m. Monday, according to spokeswoman Karen Martsolf.
The hospital sees an average of 42 patients in the emergency room in a 24-hour period. By 1:30 p.m. emergency room staff had seen 37 people, 19 of whom had ice-related injuries.
“We are definitely busy today in our emergency department,” Martsolf said. “What we are seeing mostly is an increase in ice-related injuries, and most of those patients are being treated and released for things like fractures and breaks from slips and falls.”
I-70 was closed in several locations for accidents, and many drivers were stranded when an 11-mile section from Clifton to Grand Junction was closed at 7:20 a.m. and didn’t fully reopen until after 2 p.m., according to Tracy Trulove, CDOT spokeswoman.
Kaje Clarke of Fruita was one of those drivers. She sat on eastbound I-70 for more than two hours after she tried to get her son to school. On the way, they counted at least 13 vehicles from Fruita to Horizon Drive that had slipped off the road or were involved in accidents.
Clarke and her 7-year-old son, Logan, were trying to get to Juniper Ridge Community School, but were unable to exit the interstate at 24 Road due to slippery conditions and stalled traffic. They got stuck about two miles down the road and she feared they would run out of gas.
At one point, she became desperate to use the bathroom and ended up relieving herself on the side of the road, slipping on the ice.
“I was only half-worried about indecent exposure or arrest, but sure enough, a cop did pass by right as I was in a compromised position,” she said.
Her son startled her by alerting her to that fact as she tried to remain upright and finish her business.
Clarke, a native Coloradan who is experienced at driving in snow and in white-out conditions, said she’s never seen anything like the black ice she saw Monday.
Towing companies were scrambling to keep up with requests for help. Girardi’s Towing dispatcher Judy Gerard said she couldn’t even count the number of calls. The company had four trucks in constant demand on Monday morning, assisting semi-trucks, snowplows, buses, and even a firetruck stranded on the interstate, she said.
“We’d never seen anything like it before,” she said.
Transportation officials said they experienced challenging weather conditions across the state on Monday, including wind gusts toppling semi-trucks on the Front Range south of Denver, which prompted restrictions on commercial vehicles, and avalanche danger in the mountains in addition to the unusual ice storm in the Grand Valley. I-70 was closed at Gypsum in both directions for much of the day as hazardous materials crews handled cleanup of a tanker that spilled more than 2,000 gallons of fuel after it was involved in an accident with a box truck that spilled a load of empty beer cans across the highway.
Officials announced that Colorado Highway 65 would be closed over Grand Mesa — Powderhorn Mountain Resort remains accessible — for avalanche mitigation this morning after several natural slides happened on Monday, and that avalanche danger had also caused the closure of U.S. 550 from Ouray to Durango as well as Monarch Pass. CDOT Deputy Director Mike Lewis said the agency would have crews deployed in full-force across the state for much of the week, considering the forecasts for heavy snows in the high country.
Rimrock Drive over Colorado National Monument also was closed.
Both city of Grand Junction and Mesa County offices delayed opening until 9 a.m. today.
Staff writer Gary Harmon contributed to this report.