DECATUR — A winter storm’s handiwork kept road crews busy and led to several school cancellations Friday, but vigilant drivers experienced few accidents.
Decatur had received 4 inches of snow by 9:18 p.m. Thursday, according to the National Weather Service at Lincoln. Although there were about 10 minor accidents during the daylight hours Thursday, drivers in Decatur exercised caution in the wake of the storm.
Decatur police patrol Lt. Doug Taylor said no accidents had been reported by mid-afternoon Friday.
“People are probably driving carefully,” Taylor said. “You anticipate all kinds of accidents. Maybe people have heeded the warning and taken it to heart.”
Sgt. Jason Brown of the Macon County Sheriff’s Office said one serious accident occurred about 1:30 p.m. Thursday between a sport utility vehicle and a semitruck, which occurred on Illinois 121 near Hervey City. The driver of the SUV suffered minor cuts and bruises but refused medical treatment.
The accident, which closed down the highway because the truck’s trailer was in the roadway, occurred just before the storm hit.
Sheriff’s deputies assisted at the scene of several incidents in which drivers lost control of their vehicles and went into ditches.
The combination of sleet, snow and freezing drizzle kept road crews busy trying to clear the pavement.
Municipal Services Manager Dick Borders said the city’s strategy of pretreating roads with salt brine earlier in the week helped keep the snow and ice from bonding with the pavement. Still, he said it was a difficult storm that required the assistance of 17 trucks Thursday night and 22 trucks Friday.
“The snow came in pretty darn quick and pretty darn hard, so we had to upscale,” Borders said. “We had quite a few trucks out last night salting and brought more in as the snow came down.”
The trucks also began plowing as soon as the snow became deeper than 2 inches.
Borders said an additional six trucks would remain on the streets Friday night to prevent refreezing.
Macon County Engineer Bruce Bird said county trucks plowed and salted, finally finishing the cleanup by 2 p.m. Friday. Six trucks were treating county routes Thursday night and seven trucks were out Friday.
“The storm couldn’t quite make up its mind what it wanted to do,” Bird said. When ice is coming down, crews dispense salt to try to melt it, but adding salt to snow can make it more difficult to remove, he said.
Road crews aren’t the only ones that can experience a sleepless night because of the severe weather. School superintendents have the responsibility of deciding whether to cancel classes, and they don’t make the decision lightly.
“The night before, I begin by monitoring the weather using the Internet and news stations,” said Kristen Kendrick, superintendent of Warrensburg-Latham schools. “My head of maintenance serves as the fire chief in town, so he has access to the National Weather Service out of Lincoln and he gets regular updates. I speak to my head of maintenance, and one of us will talk with our local road commissioners. If the weather is questionable after speaking with those individuals, I will speak to my head of transportation and neighboring district superintendents.”
The goal is to make a decision and announce it by 5:30 a.m., she said.
Rural Macon and Piatt county superintendents keep in touch when bad weather threatens, said Damian Jones, superintendent of Argenta-Oreana schools, and compare notes on the condition of the roads in adjoining districts.
Like them, he checks weather reports, calls road commissioners and goes out to see for himself.
“The final factor used in the decision-making process is driving the back roads of the school district,” Jones said. “I may drive in the evening and the morning, depending on when the weather incident occurs. Normally, (Maroa-Forsyth Superintendent) Mike Williams and I are on the roads by 5 a.m. and discuss our road conditions over the phone several times before making a decision. Student and staff safety is very important to all superintendents. We use our best judgment to decide whether to call off school.”
Sangamon Valley Superintendent Ernie Fowler said one of this teachers joked with him Friday morning that it was his fault they didn’t get a snow day, and he said he is grateful for the hard work put in by the county road crews so calling a snow day wasn’t necessary.
“I said (to the teacher), ‘You hate me now, but you’re going to want to hug me in May,’ ” he said with a smile.
Districts that don’t use all their snow days take them off at the end of the school year and dismiss for summer earlier.
Central A&M, Pana, Okaw Valley, Taylorville, Sullivan, Mattoon, Charleston and Shelbyville schools were closed Friday, as was Lincoln Land College. Several other districts to the south of Decatur also called a snow day. Northwest Christian Campus in Decatur was closed, but most Macon County schools and Decatur public schools were open.
Decatur school personnel start in the very early morning and look at factors including bus routes, driver turnout and facility needs, said spokeswoman Kendall Briscoe. The goal is to let the community know before 6 a.m., using Channel 22, the district website, Facebook and local media to get the message out if schools are closed.
“An easy checklist of considerations can’t really be used in the determination because each individual storm has different conditions and to different degrees,” said Travis Roundcount, superintendent of Mount Zion schools.
Some years ago, his mother, a teacher, hit a truck head-on while trying to get to school on a snowy day. He said he doesn’t take the decision lightly.
“While no one wants any student or staff to be seriously injured trying to get to school, we also can’t provide a quality education if we took off school every time it snowed,” he said.