Delaware’s big chill: State prepares for a blizzard

Large chunks of ice as formed near the Barkers Landing boat ramp near Dover on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — On Wednesday afternoon Shane Payne, a lineman for the Delaware Electric Cooperative, was scurrying to make sure he had all the tools he’ll need for today aboard his truck.

In his 15 years working for the co-op the worst snow storm, in terms of power outages, he’d ever worked was in 2010.

“It was a bad blizzard and I had to do eight days straight of 16-hour workdays,” he said. “We were getting going at 2 a.m. and putting lines back up left and right.”

According to the co-op, around 23,000 members lost power during that blizzard.

Unsure at that point what the predicted winter storm would bring, Mr. Payne said he needs to be ready for anything.

“We could be facing anything from trees falling on lines, lines being overloaded with ice or vehicles crashing into poles,” said Mr. Payne. “Whatever happens, we have to be ready for it. We always try to restore power as quickly as possible.”

The National Weather Service raised its predictions Wednesday evening to include a blizzard warning for coastal Delaware, increased flooding warnings and snowfall totals.

Forecasters expected 8-12 inches for most of Sussex County, 6-8 inches in Kent County and 4-6 inches in New Castle County starting Wednesday evening and continuing into this morning.

Wednesday evening, downstate public schools began announcing closures for Thursday and Beebe Healthcare said its satellite offices would be closed.

Sussex County and Milford school districts announced schools would be closed Tuesday. Kent County’s Smyrna, Caesar Rodney, Capital, Polytech and Lake Forest all announced two-hour delays and noted updates would be announced in the morning.

Code Purple shelters, most already open because of the week’s frigid temperatures, were activated statewide. Call 211 for locations.

Regardless of the eventual totals, the weather service believes that strong winds would lead to areas of significant snow drifts — impacting travel.

Blustery northwest winds of 21-25 mph, with gusts as high as 43 mph, are expected today in Kent County. The high will be about 27 degrees.

The forecasters said it would be bitterly cold tonight with a low around 10 and wind chill value as low as minus 5. The lowest wind chills are expected Friday and Saturday morning.

Minor coastal flooding is also possible today. In addition to typical minor coastal flooding impacts, any stagnant flood waters may freeze on road surfaces causing further hazards. High temperatures are expected to be in the teens Friday and Saturday.

On Wednesday the Delaware River and Bay Authority pulled the plug on Cape May–Lewes ferry operations for today because of icy conditions.

“Bitter cold temperatures and strong northwest winds are causing ice sheets to stack up in the Cape May canal,” said Heath Gehrke, director of ferry operations. “With the approaching winter storm, these conditions are expected to worsen over the next few days. We will continue to monitor the weather conditions and will be providing service updates on a daily basis.”

On Wednesday the Weather Channel released a statement warning east-coasters about the “brutal cold temperature” that may follow the storm.

“The type of air that we’re talking about and the wind chills involved here can freeze your skin in minutes — frostbite is a huge threat,” said meteorologist Jim Cantore. “Any precipitation thrown into this type of air mass, even in the Deep South, means hazardous traveling conditions. There are some cases where you’re just going to have to stay off the roads.”

The Dover Police reminded anyone seeking shelter during the storm should contact a Code Purple Shelter by dialing 211.

An Intake Housing Specialist will be available at that number to assist Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. After hours calls to 211 will be directed to shelters with openings.

DelDOT preparation

As of Wednesday afternoon DelDOT crews were pre-treating primary roadways with brine — focusing in Kent and Sussex counties.

“We always hit the primary roads first such as Routes 1, 13 and 113,” said DelDOT spokesman Charles “C.R.” McLeod. “If there’s time before the snow starts falling we’ll move on to the secondary roads. The brine really makes a difference in helping us stay on top of conditions.”

Mr. McLeod said the forecast winter storm has DelDOT’s entire response team of about 500 employees and 400 plow trucks on standby Wednesday night.

“For an expected statewide event like this, we get everyone ready,” he said. “Our response will be concentrated in certain areas depending on where we’re seeing the most intense snow, which as of the most recent forecast, looks like it’s going to be in Sussex County.”

Both high winds and ensuing frigid temperatures are expected to complicate snow removal efforts, said Mr. McLeod.

“If we get several inches of snow and also see the high winds, that’ll lead to a lot of drifting — that can make roads hazardous and slow down our snow clearing operation,” he added. “Also, if we get the more substantial arctic blast predicted to hit after the storm, that can reduce the effectiveness of our salt on the roads.

When temperatures stay in the mid-teens, the salt doesn’t melt ice and snow as well. Realistically, it just means we’ll have to continuously hit the same roads, which we’re prepared to do, it just might slow things down a bit.”

DelDOT always recommends limiting travel during snowstorms and closely monitoring the roads before driving during potentially hazardous conditions.

“Check to see if there are any driving restrictions in place before heading out anywhere,” said Mr. McLeod. “We aren’t anticipating any yet, but folks should try to inform themselves about what they’re heading into. Also, make sure to give the plow trucks plenty of room. This will ensure everyone’s safety.”

Keeping the lights on

It’s reasonable to assume DelDOT has it’s hands full in weather events such as these, but electric companies and other utility providers also need to mobilize. Delaware Electrical Cooperative spokesman Jeremy Tucker noted that several power outages were caused during the most recent snowfall by cars crashing into utility poles.

The co-op’s staff of 40 lineman with 33 service and bucket trucks are standing by to make emergency repairs on the company’s infrastructure, if needed. They have a total of 95,000 members in the state — many in rural areas.

As a lineman, Mr. Payne claims the co-op’s infrastructure is well-positioned to hold up during winter storms and even if there are outages, the system is set up so power can be restored quickly.

“You never know for sure what will happen, sometimes we’ll have several back-to-back outages, but other times, even with really big storms, we don’t have any issues,” he said. “Unless it’s something major though, we’re able to get power turned back on quickly — usually no longer than a few hours to a day.”

In the event of an outage, co-op staff moves to restore power to the largest number of people first, noted Mr. Tucker.

Drive safe

Like DelDOT, the Delaware State Police is urging motorists in the state to exercise caution during the predicted snowstorm.

“Motorists should be prepared for snow-covered and slippery roads, along with strong winds and limited visibility which make driving conditions difficult,” read a police statement. “Use caution while driving when approaching intersections and off ramps, especially bridges and overpasses.

“Remember to reduce speed and increase following distance between vehicles. Allow ample time to reach your destination, allow extra space between vehicles, and keep vehicle headlights on to increase visibility.”

Police officials also stressed the importance of checking over vehicles to ensure they’re in “good working order.”

“Fill up the fuel tank in advance,” said officials. “Check the windshield wipers, windshield wiper fluid, tire tread, battery life, etc. If you should have vehicle problems, be sure to stay with your vehicle, as freezing temperatures can be life-threatening. Be sure to have an emergency kit in the vehicle consisting of a blanket, bottled water, snack, cell phone charger and a flashlight.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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