Whiteout conditions cause numerous crashes on Indiana roads

 

Where drivers saw only white during blizzard-like conditions on Valentines’ Day, public officials saw red.

The Elkhart County Board of Commissioners issued a disaster emergency declaration Saturday afternoon, Feb. 14, after heavy snowfall and high winds made driving near impossible. The travel status in the county was elevated to a “warning” advisory, which is highlighted in red on the Indiana Department of Homeland Security’s travel status map.

Red means keep off the roads. Red means if you’re stranded, it might take a while for emergency workers to get to you.

To raise the travel status to red is not a decision that the commissioners take lightly, said Elkhart County commissioner Mike Yoder.

“I was out driving around, and I knew the conditions were really bad,” he said. “So when the highway department had to pull truck drivers off the road because it was too dangerous to plow snow because of the visibility, that’s a good sign to get out.”

The commissioners, however, are only involved in deciding whether the travel status should be elevated to red. It’s Elkhart County Emergency Management that decides whether to issue a “watch,” which is orange; or an “advisory,” which is yellow.

Red is the highest level of travel advisory, followed by orange and yellow. Orange means that people should only get behind the wheel if it’s for work or an emergency. Yellow warns drivers that they might not be able to use the roads because the roads conditions could worsen.

Emergency management decides on whether the travel status should be orange or yellow based on what the weather’s going to be like and how drivers and road crews are affected. It’s a collaboration between the sheriff’s department and the highway department.

The sheriff’s department keeps track of the number of weather-related incidents and stranded motorists. The highway department keeps in touch with its foremen about whether road crews are able to clear county roads adequately and safely. Each department gives its recommendation on whether the travel status should be elevated.

Emergency management also consults the National Weather Service about whether the weather will get better or worse.

Once the travel status changes, emergency management informs the Indiana Department of Homeland Security to update its travel advisory map.

If conditions worsen to the point that the safety of drivers and road crews are at risk, each department makes a recommendation to the Elkhart County Board of Commissioners to raise the travel status to red.

“We’ve worked together for years, so when the sheriff says it’s bad and the highway department says it’s bad, it’s an emergency,” Yoder said. “These guys don’t recommend this lightly.”

During a travel warning advisory, only highway, utility and emergency workers should be using the roads. Anyone else driving during the advisory can be fined, said Elkhart County sheriff Brad Rogers.

But sheriff’s deputies are just as taxed as anyone else driving during severe weather, Rogers said. His approach is to only cite drivers found to have caused an accident even though they were told to not use the roads.

“Officers are just as handicapped in such a crisis as the public, so we really cannot just go out and enforce this easily,” Rogers said. “I take the approach that the public could be cited if they cause a crash or other serious situation when they should not have been out.”

No one, however, was cited on Valentine’s Day, he said.

The table below are the various weather conditions used to by the National Weather Service to determine whether to issue a weather advisory, watch or warning. 

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