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MDOT’s limited resources likely worsened winter storm’s impact on central Mississippi

Lack of equipment, selective spraying of Interstate 20 played a role in deteriorating road conditions
Updated: Feb. 17, 2021 at 11:57 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - While drivers in central Mississippi deal with a third day of treacherous road conditions and the potential for a second wave of winter weather, new information from the Mississippi Department of Transportation reveals at least two factors that likely made the impact of that snow and ice on roads even worse.

For days, MDOT told reporters -- and the public -- that its crews pretreated the state’s major highways and interstates with a mixture of brine, salt and slag before the arrival of snow and ice on Sunday evening, which would have lowered the freezing point on those roadways and made it harder for that frozen precipitation to accumulate.

3 On Your Side has learned that only a portion of Interstate 20 was actually pretreated at all: overpasses and bridges in the Jackson metro area, as well as the criss-cross of elevated roadways known as “The Stack.”

The agency’s deputy director of public affairs, Jas N Smith, told WLBT initially none of I-20 had been treated before the winter weather, but corrected his original statement after a MDOT engineer saw WLBT’s Wednesday evening story and noticed what Smith said.

In Mississippi, Interstate 20 runs through multiple counties, starting at Vicksburg and running through Jackson and Meridian before crossing into Alabama.

Smith also originally said I-20 had not been pretreated because of anticipated rain that would have washed the salt, brine and slag away, essentially wasting those materials.

It’s unclear why only bridges and overpasses on that section of interstate were targeted by MDOT crews.

“We’ve got our crews out there doing as much as we can possibly do, limited just by the number of people that can be on the roads at any given time out there doing everything we possibly can to make sure that we open those roads, keep that traffic flowing,” Smith said. “And unfortunately Mother Nature is just working against us very hard. You know, It’s an uphill battle. And it’s snowing both ways, but we’re doing what we can to combat it.”

MDOT has 86 snow plows at its disposal across the state, according to public information officer Michael Flood.

The vast majority of them -- 73 -- were stationed in the agency’s northern district.

MDOT provided seven snow plows for its central district, which includes the Jackson metro area and I-20 corridor.

“We can armchair quarterback, but you know, at the time, you know, the snowplows were put in the place that we expected to be the hardest hit,” Smith said. “We just did not necessarily expect it to be this level of ice and snow sustained for this long of a period. And transporting those is not necessarily a quick thing either.”

It’s also a time-sensitive strategy, Smith said.

Once the snow hardens into ice, it’s almost impossible for a snow plow to remove it.

Gov. Tate Reeves spoke to Mississippians about the winter weather event through a Facebook Live broadcast Wednesday afternoon, the first time the governor had addressed at length the snow and ice that had crippled hundreds of thousands of residents.

Reeves spoke for eight minutes and took no questions from the thousands watching on social media.

“This is relatively unusual. One of the reasons it’s so unusual, is because right now, in our state, virtually everybody is at risk. But everyone is at different levels of risk,” Reeves said, explaining that the Mississippi Delta could be hit even harder over the next thirty-six hours with what he called “a significant amount of ice.”

Reeves said northeast and central Mississippi could see more snow and ice as well, and added that south Mississippi has the possibility of hail and tornadoes over the next day and a half.

Reeves did not mention the state of emergency during the Facebook livestream, which was issued by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann on Valentine’s Day with little fanfare in an executive order primarily dealing with exemptions for commercial truckers carrying heating fuel in an emergency.

Mississippi’s governor did, however, praise state agencies for their work, Mississippians for their patience, and law enforcement for dealing with 1,115 accidents since Sunday.

The governor did not address any concerns or criticisms with MDOT’s efforts to clear roads throughout the state, though he did say he was in constant communication with MEMA and the state’s department of public safety.

MEMA spokesperson Malary White confirmed they’re helping with messaging efforts in other counties and assisting with personnel.

Though other state agencies are assisting MDOT in these efforts, MDOT is the lead agency handling the state’s response to this winter weather event.

Smith said the agency does have plans in place, but those were originally meant for a few counties, not the majority of the state.

However, he could not say whether MDOT had ever drafted a specific plan for a winter storm of this magnitude, instead pointing out that the agency’s districts -- six in all -- have been able to use a modified version of those plans intended for a handful of counties.

“It really is just not so much that they were overwhelmed, it was just we had to turn on all the switches at the same time whereas normally we’re only flipping one or two,” Smith said. “But the crews have been out. They’ve been able to manage as best as they could. The issue isn’t so much the plan or the resources. It’s just we’ve had unprecedented weather for this region.”

Author’s note: An earlier version of this story said that Gov. Reeves did not declare a state of emergency. That is true, though additional context has been added to show that Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, as acting governor, issued the state of emergency this weekend.

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