Emergency crews focus on reaching stranded I-75 motorists after ‘miserable night’ in snow

First snow for new section of Citation Boulevard

A quick look at the new section of Citation Boulevard, between Georgetown and Leestown roads, as it experiences its first major snow. Video by Rich Copley | rcopley@herald-leader.com.
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A quick look at the new section of Citation Boulevard, between Georgetown and Leestown roads, as it experiences its first major snow. Video by Rich Copley | rcopley@herald-leader.com.

Snow finally stopped falling in Central Kentucky early Saturday, leaving 6 to 12 inches around the Bluegrass region, with deeper wind-driven snow drifts. Snow continued to fall in Eastern Kentucky, parts of which received 18 inches or more by Saturday night.

The National Weather Service station in Jackson reported 18.2 inches and proclaimed it “the greatest January snowstorm since records began at this station in 1981!”

Emergency officials and the Kentucky National Guard focused their attention Saturday on re-opening Interstate 75 in southern Kentucky, where several thousand motorists spent Friday night stranded in their vehicles in freezing temperatures. Tractor-trailers unable to climb the snowy, steep hills of Rockcastle and Laurel counties blocked the highway, prompting Kentucky State Police to close I-75 in both directions and divert traffic onto area roads.

“We all spent a miserable night out there,” said Laurel County emergency manager Albert Hale. Emergency workers took food and water to people stuck in vehicles, including diabetics at risk of low blood-sugar levels, Hale said. Authorities used the southbound lane to escort a woman who was headed north to Lexington for a liver transplant, he said.

“Our potty breaks are now between two open car doors with hopes of not being seen. Although I do find this a great opportunity to lose weight, because we haven’t had a meal since leaving Florida 19 hours ago,” Carol Michel of Waterville, Ohio, emailed to the Herald-Leader late Friday from the gridlocked northbound lanes of I-75. “If you can, please airlift us a pizza.”

By late Saturday morning, I-75 was reopened and the original traffic blockage was slowly starting to clear, said Mark Klaas, a manager at the state Emergency Operations Center in Frankfort.

“We’re basically waking people up and moving them on,” Klaas said.

I don’t know how they’re gonna get everyone out of here even when they get the highway cleared.

Job Murphy, truck driver

However, a new accident in the southbound lanes of I-75 in Madison County, between Richmond and Berea, brought fresh problems but no new closures, Klaas said. Also, large trucks were getting stuck on Ky. 80, the Hal Rogers Parkway, between London and Somerset, clogging traffic along that popular route to Bowling Green.

This was the second consecutive winter to see motorists stranded on a Kentucky interstate. Last March, hundreds of people spent a snowy couple of days on I-65 near Elizabethtown and I-24 near Paducah, largely because of tractor-trailers that crashed or got stuck on exit ramps.

“It’s pretty frustrating,” Klaas said. “You get a layer of snow down, and the trucks just have a hard time moving.”

Job Murphy, a truck driver headed south from Cincinnati to Spartanburg, S.C., had to stop at the Love’s Travel Stop on I-75 just north of Richmond on Friday. He was still there at midday Saturday, grateful that the truck stop’s Arby’s was open.

“This parking lot is packed full of trucks, maybe 60, 70 trucks, and the snow is 12 to 18 inches outside my door,” Murphy said. “I don’t know how they’re gonna get everyone out of here even when they get the highway cleared.”

Preliminary snowfall totals

List of cities and totals in Eastern Kentucky

Murphy said he topped off his gas tank before he was stranded, but he met another driver on Saturday who wasn’t so lucky.

“He said he’d been stuck on the interstate for 16 hours and was running low on fuel, so he couldn’t run his engine for heat and he was freezing,” Murphy said.

About 140 people sought refuge at Red Cross shelters opened for stranded motorists along I-75 in Berea, Mount Vernon and London. Kentucky State Police checked on motorists unable to leave the highway.

Truck driver Alan Russell and his wife, Lindsey, of Pendergrass, Ga., were stuck in the snow at mile marker 46 going north on I-75, near East Bernstadt, from around lunchtime Friday through Saturday morning.

Traffic had been slow since the Kentucky-Tennessee state line, “and eventually it just stopped,” Russell said. Friday evening, police officers came through and moved everyone into the right lane, he said, telling them snow plows would come through on the left. A plow finally passed his truck at 8 a.m. Saturday, he said.

“We’re all right. We’ve got water and food for days. It’s harder on the people in cars,” Russell said. “My wife was distributing granola bars to the people around us.”

In Western Kentucky, Christopher Adams, 44, a Kentucky Transportation Cabinet employee, died after his snow plow slid off Ky. 115 in Christian County and went into a ditch around 5:50 a.m. Adams called his supervisor from the scene, but he was slumped over in his seat and unresponsive when his supervisor arrived, said cabinet spokesman Ryan Watts.

“At this time, we don’t have a cause of death,” Watts said. “That’s still under investigation.”

Road crews in Lexington largely cleared the city’s “rank one” streets — the highest priority because they get the most traffic, such as the downtown grid and the segments of Richmond, Versailles, Harrodsburg, Nicholasville and Winchester roads inside New Circle Road, city officials said. Crews worked on rank two streets, which include connector roads and other lesser thoroughfares, like Man O’ War Boulevard and Alumni Drive, and some rank three streets, which extend into residential neighborhoods.

“Main streets are mostly clear, with the occasional blowing snow,” said Albert Miller, director of the Division of Streets and Roads in Lexington.

The National Weather Service reported that Lexington officially received 7.1 inches of snow between Friday and Saturday, with more accumulation in the eastern half of Fayette County and neighboring Jessamine, Madison and Clark counties. But Lexington also saw wind gusts of up to 32 miles an hour on Friday that pushed snow drifts higher and complicated the work of people trying to clear roads and sidewalks.

Kentucky Utilities reported scattered power outages across southern Kentucky on Saturday afternoon, including a total of 214 customers affected in Jamestown, Whitley City and Pineville. Kentucky Power said service was out to 113 of its customers in Perry County, with crews working to make repairs.

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics

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