Snow buries Garrett; I-68 may be closed again
Two feet of fresh snow and high winds made Garrett County roads dangerous and all but impassable Friday. Emergency managers there have reimposed a local state of emergency they had finally lifted on Tuesday, two and a half weeks after the February storms began.
Plows cannot keep ahead of fresh fallen and drifting snow, officials said, and emergency crews are busy clearing a second multi-car pileup, with numerous injuries, on Interstate 68.
"I-68 is not closed, but we are telling people, if you don't have to be out in this, don't bother coming out. These are blizzard conditions. They will travel at their own risk," said Sgt. James Hare, at the McHenry Barracks of the Maryland State Police.
While I-68 is not officialy closed, he said, eastbound traffic at 2:30 p.m. remained stopped just east of the Garrett/Allegany County line due to an accident that occurred around 11 a.m. today. "Travel is almost impossible there."
UPDATE: 3:30 p.m.: The State Highway Administration said I-68 is open in both directions, all lanes. Conditions are "improving, but hazardous."
County officials said the snow has been extraordinary, even for Garrett. "I've been in public safety for 35 years, and I've never seen storms one after another, with the cumulative effect being like this," said Brad Frantz, Garrett's director of emergency management.
"Road conditions are bad," he said. "So we are strongly urging folks to not travel in Garrett County right now. The roads are basically impassable. I'm pushing hard for Interstate 68 to be shut back down, and anybody who tries to travel will have to get on alternate routes, and those will be worse."
The National Weather Service is predicting another 10 to 20 inches of snow at McHenry through Saturday.
The State Highway Administration issued a statement warning of poor driving conditions in Garrett and western Allegany counties.
"Travel conditions are extremely hazardous ... causing major travel issues along Interstate 68 and US 40 west of Cumberland," officials said. "SHA maintenance crews continue to plow roads in the area, although the heavy snow and high winds are causing major delays and hazardous conditions."
Organizers of the "Deep Creek Dunk," a fund-raiser for the Special Olympics scheduled for Saturday in McHenry, are urging people not to attempt to make the drive because of the poor road conditions in Garrett County. Participants already in town were invited to take part in the dunk, at 2 p.m., and "scaled-back" festivities afterwards.
I-68 was closed for several hours Thursday afternoon after a 15-car pileup near Finzel, at the Garrett/Allegany County line. Five people were transported to area hospitals.
"Now it has opened back up, and shortly after we had another multi-casualty" incident, Frantz said. "We are still working that one ... The last I heard is that we had some entrapment with that."
Frantz said he had just finished a conference call with the National Weather Service. "We had one report of 23 inches of new snow," he said. "That's on top of what we already had. We are probably close to 250 inches of snow for the year now... more than 20 feet.
Even for snow-savvy Garrett County, Frantz said, "This is way beyond normal."
"County roads are impassable. Plows are not able to plow. They basically can't keep up. They're blowing shut as soon as they open them. They are trying to keep major arteries open and having limited success. The more rural routes, they are getting to them as they can."
During an earlier storm, fire fighters were unable to reach a house fire, and the home was "a total loss," he said. No one was injured. "Pretty much any fire or EMS incident we're sending a plow truck ahead of it on the assumption that most areas are not accessible right now."
"The other issue that's brewing here is there is over 10 inches of water equivalent on the ground," Frantz said. "When this thaws, it will be like getting a 10-inch rainstorm. If it goes all at once, the next thing you will be calling me about is the floods."
Garrett isn't alone, Frantz said. "To our west in West Virginia, they are having some of the same issues, and somewhat to the east. The western end of Allegany County is just about on the same level with us. From Cumberland east it slacks off. That's normally the case. Being on the Allegheny Plateau, everything gets hung up here."
The brutal weather is taking its toll. "Fire, EMS, 911, the county and state highway folks are doing a tremendous job, but it's starting to build up," Frantz said. There have been some equipment failures, and municipalites have been hurt further by sharp cuts in funding to local government from state highway user funds - the gasoline tax.