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Published: 3/14/2003

Drivers hope ice storm is winter's finale

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Jill Holbrook of Toledo clears the snow and ice that had accumulated on her windshield while she was parked only a short time on Michigan Street. Jill Holbrook of Toledo clears the snow and ice that had accumulated on her windshield while she was parked only a short time on Michigan Street.
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A late-season storm brought a mix of rain freezing rain, sleet, and light snow to northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, closing schools and slowing down the morning commute.

“The grand finale of the winter season? I sure hope so,” said Hussein Abounaaj, Toledo's commissioner of streets, bridges and harbor, whose plows and salt trucks were on duty several hours before the storm began and still struggled to keep up with the ice - particularly on side streets.

On the Ohio Turnpike, a New York man died in a two-car collision near Bellevue, Ohio, that appeared to be weather-related.

Javier Gaitan, 57, of Queens, N.Y., was a passenger in a westbound car that slid off the road, bounced off a guardrail, and was hit by another car about 7:30 a.m. just west of the State Rt. 4 interchange, according to troopers at the Ohio Highway Patrol's Milan post.

Mr. Gaitan was pronounced dead at the scene, while the driver of his car, Dario Rendon, 65, also of Queens, was transported first to Bellevue Hospital and then Medical College of Ohio Hospitals in Toledo, where he was listed in fair condition.

The second car's driver, Kenneth Tripp, 52, of Liberty, Pa., was not hurt.

Officials with both the Ohio Department of Transportation and the city of Toledo said the storm was particularly difficult to fight because rain that fell at the beginning washed away salt and brine that crews spread ahead of time to try to keep ice from sticking to pavement.

“The ice did bond to the pavement in a lot of places,” Joe Rutherford, an ODOT district spokesman, said. “But if we get a little bit of sun, this ice will break right up.”

By afternoon, the sun indeed shone, and street conditions improved.

Icy patches remained in shadowed areas, however, and melt water was likely to refreeze overnight, when temperatures were forecast to drop to near 20.

Forecasters expected the year's first sustained warm-up to get going today. Temperatures are expected to rise to the upper 40s this afternoon, and Paul Dornsife, a meteorologist with Accu-Weather, Inc., a private forecasting service in State College, Pa., said even warmer air will move in for the weekend.

“We're looking at some beautiful weather,” Mr. Dornsife said. “The weekend looks to be great - lots of sunshine on Saturday, and close to 60 by Sunday.

Icy weather developed because wind circulation in the storm sucked brought a warm layer of air above cold air at the surface, the meteorologist said. After melting in the warmer air aloft, precipitation either froze on contact with the ground or re-froze and landed as sleet.

Sharp temperature contrasts associated with the storm - it was 20 degrees warmer in Cincinnati in the morning than it was in Toledo - created strong air currents that led to predawn thunder throughout the area, Mr. Dornsife said.

Pat Nowak, event chairman for the Garden Club Forum's Scintilla luncheon and fashion show, heard the thunder at 4 a.m. and considered it a good weather omen for the noontime event at the Great Hall of the Stranahan Masonic Complex on Heatherdowns Boulevard, which is the club's largest annual fund-raiser.

“Then, around 6, I was listening to the sound and thought, `That sounds too hard for rain,'” she said. “I looked out and it was a sheet of ice. I thought, `Great, nobody's going to come.'”

But the show did go on after a one-hour delay, and organizers estimated that attendance was down only by about 50 people from the expected 550. The fashionable audience's only concession to winter was conservative clothing, despite the show's springtime theme.

The icy conditions that spread from Lima to Lenawee County prompted school districts throughout the region to cancel classes.

CSX Transportation halted operations at its two Lake Township rail yards for two hours during the morning because of the ice, forcing a train backlog that took the rest of the day to clear.

Flight delays and two cancellations were reported at Toledo Express Airport.

But except for the turnpike crash, police reported a relatively light volume of traffic accidents, despite the treacherous driving conditions.

Dispatchers reported fender-benders and vehicles in ditches. Erie County drivers seemed to have a particularly tough morning commute, having to deal with downed limbs and wires as well.

No major problems were reported.

“I appreciate all the safety that motorists used this morning,” said Lt. Kevin Keel, head of the Toledo Police Department's traffic section.

AAA Northwest Ohio received a below-average number of road-service calls, spokesman Kathryn Churchill said. “Maybe by mid-March, they're prepared” for winter weather, she said.

Brian Corbett, the police chief in Jonesville, Mich., said law enforcement was expecting roads to be worse - perhaps something they've been conditioned for after a winter's worth of bad weather.

“I told everyone last weekend was going to be the last of the snow. Obviously, I was wrong,” the chief said. “Now I'll say it for this time. Maybe this time it will come true.”

Not so fast, Mr. Dornsife said. While the storm could prove to be winter's last gasp, Toledo's weather history includes plenty of snowfalls in early April too.

“It doesn't stick around as long, but it does happen,” the forecaster said.

Blade staff writers Vanessa Winans and Erica Blake contributed to this report.



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