Pine Bluff and Jefferson County residents awoke Tuesday morning to an icy mess as moderate freezing rain overspread the area, leading area school districts to cancel classes for the day and causing some power outages as well as downed trees.
“With cold air in place last night and a storm system approaching from the southwest pulling up moisture the stage was set for freezing rain in Arkansas,” National Weather Service Meteorologist Jeff Hood said Tuesday afternoon. “Precipitation started to develop overnight with some reports of sleet but primarily freezing rain. We held on to the frozen precipitation for a while as the temperatures remained at or just below freezing into the early afternoon.”
Hood said more ice accumulated than originally forecast because the temperature did not rise as quickly as anticipated.
“Many locations in central Arkansas received up to two tenths of an inch of ice,” Hood said.
Hood warned that winds were expected to increase Tuesday night and Wednesday.
“We put out a statement that winds up to 25 miles per hour by Wednesday will cause further problems for any trees or power lines that are ice covered,” Hood said.
While Jefferson County was not the epicenter of power outages in Arkansas, the area did not entirely escape one of the most troublesome aspects of an ice storm.
The Entergy Arkansas online power outage map showed approximately 70 outages in and around Pine Bluff at 1:30 p.m., but that number jumped to 283 outages as of 3 p.m. Statewide outages stood at 36,000 at 1:30 p.m.
“The hardest-hit area was Garland County,” Entergy Arkansas spokesperson Sally Graham said early Tuesday afternoon. “We had 7,500 customer outages around Hot Springs Tuesday afternoon. Statewide we had 11,000 outages as of 11:07 a.m. and by 11:40 a.m. that number was up to 17,000 outages.”
Graham said such a spike is indicative of ice accumulation on trees and power lines.
“We have crews out there right now working to restore power,” Graham said. “We have additional crews helping us. Of course, we are still getting additional outages even as power is restored in other areas.”
Danny Straessle with the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department said roadways in and around Pine Bluff and Jefferson County had very little weather-related problems during the day Tuesday.
“Our crews reported in at 6 a.m. and this afternoon they are working on removing slush from bridges on Interstate 530 in northern Jefferson County on up into Little Rock,” Straessle said. “Other than that there have been no major problems. Our night crew is coming in at midnight to deal with the refreezing trouble spots.”
Straessle said the morning commute in Little Rock was slightly problematic.
“The early commute had already started when the frozen precipitation began to accumulate,” Straessle said. “A tractor trailer turned over on the Interstate 30 off-ramp to Cantrell Road next to the Clinton Library. Up in northwest Arkansas where there was more precipitation, our crews had the most work to do in the state.”
Straessle said part of the duties of AHTD crew members is to remove fallen trees and limbs from highways.
“They have chainsaws ready to go,” Straessle said. “Anything that lands on the highway that’s not supposed to be there we get rid of.”
Straessle said ice issues extended fairly far to the south.
“We had ice in Cleveland and Dallas counties so a good two-thirds of the state was impacted,” Straessle said. “When you try to get a jump on it, timing is everything. Crews pretreated the roads in Jefferson County, so they were in good shape.”
Ricky Rodden is the assistant manager of the Pine Bluff Street Department.
“Our crews put down a mix of abrasive material and calcium on the bridges before the storm,” Rodden said. “We use calcium to melt the ice when it gets thick.”
Rodden said he and his crews are watching the trees.
“My biggest fear right now is the danger of trees falling,” Rodden said. “We have chainsaws ready if we need them.”
Rodden said a full crew was out maintaining the roadways Tuesday and that a six-person crew would be on duty Tuesday night in the events that roads begin to ice.
A spokesperson with the White Hall Police Department reported few ice-related problems early Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s not bad at all here as far as traffic is concerned,” the spokesperson said. “I think they had some problems on the interstate this morning, but there’s no problems with the city streets. There’s ice in the trees and on power lines, but nothing’s sagging. If (precipitation) keeps falling, there could be some problems with the water on the road freezing once the temperature drops.”
“Streets are slushy and trees and power lines are iced, but we dodged a bullet here,” a spokesperson with the Redfield Police Department said. “It could have been worse. We’ve had no accidents because of the weather.”
“We’re hoping people will stay off the roads when the temperature drops,” the spokesperson said. “If someone has to be out, they should make sure they know the street conditions before they get going. They can call the police department 24 hours at 501-397-5100 and speak with an officer.”
Jefferson County Judge Dutch King kept in close touch with National Weather Service meteorologists during the day to stay abreast of changing weather conditions and to determine whether he should dismiss his staff early.
“The most important thing is the safety of the people at the courthouse so I have decided to let most of the staff go home early,” King said. “The courthouse is still open but I’d rather be safe than sorry when it comes to the safety of our county employees.”
King said county roads were in good shape.
“The roads are fine,” King said. “Our road crews are out working on keeping the bridges and overpasses clear of ice. Crews will be out throughout the night to try to stay ahead of the weather.”
King said that he knew of no weather-related accidents in the county.
“I spoke with the State Police and they said that they had no accidents to report,” King said.
Jefferson County Office of Emergency Management Coordinator Karen Quarles said her office had received no serious reports.
“We had a tree down on Shannon Road and had to call out the county road department to clear it,” Quarles said.
Staff writer Rick Joslin contributed to this story