What Went on Behind the Scenes of the Town’s Emergency Response to Wednesday’s Surprise Rain and Icy Road Chaos

Wednesday morning’s freezing rain and frigid temps caught everyone off guard, and the ensuing icy road conditions led to extreme difficulty for drivers trying to navigate the slick surfaces. Accidents, stranded vehicles and slips and falls dominated the Wilton Police Department blotter — there were 44 calls classified as ‘disabled vehicle’ or ‘MVA’ (motor vehicle accident) by 11:30 a.m.

When an inclement weather situation occurs, Wilton Public School Superintendent Kevin Smith usually has enough advance warning and input from Wilton Police and a meteorologist to make a decision about the school start time by 5 a.m., if not the night before. But the surprise element to Wednesday’s situation, the late timing of the weather and what eventually developed meant news of the conditions didn’t get to Smith until much later.

As a result, the first messages notifying school families of a two-hour delayed start for the school day went out after 6 a.m. When road conditions hadn’t improved two hours later,  Smith tried to save in-person learning with a move to a three-hour delay. But by 9 a.m., when it became clear that travel was still dangerous, he canceled school completely for the day.

The Town personnel involved in advance preparation for an inclement weather event — emergency responders, road crews and public works, and town and school officials — were just as surprised as residents about what developed Wednesday morning. We checked in with Wilton Police Chief John Lynch and Department of Public Works (DPW) Director Chris Burney to find out what goes on behind the scenes of a dangerous weather situation like the one that hit Connecticut Wednesday. They tell us in their words what happened for their personnel.

That’s an important thing to remember — the unusual weather system and the timing made it a tough one to respond to and it caught everyone off guard, not just Wilton officials. Portions of the Merritt Parkway were closed when icy surfaces made driving too hazardous and caused pileup accidents. Other highways had the same thing happen. The CT Department of Transportation got a lot of angry calls and questions about how it responded, and tweeted out about how difficult this “perfect storm” was for them and why it ‘couldn’t’ pre-treat.

photo: DOT Traffic Camera

Wilton Police Chief John Lynch

At midnight I checked the latest forecast and saw that there was a chance of some freezing rain, that it would be spotty and it would occur between 4 a.m. and noon. It was not forecast to be a significant event.

DPW monitors these forecasts and prepares accordingly. As far as sanding-salting goes, I am not the expert but my understanding is that pre-treating roads does not necessarily work unless you are expecting snow. This morning the air temperature was warmer in the upper atmosphere and the ground was freezing which caused rain/drizzle and froze upon contact with the road surface. My understanding is that salt works best when there is traffic driving on it, but if it is down before the rain/ice it [gets] covered, and the roads still become slick.

I haven’t seen this type of icing condition to this extent in some 20-plus years. It is very rare. I defer to the Public Works Professionals but know they always do a fantastic job making our roadways safe.

The roads became icy sometime between 6:45 and 7 a.m. Additionally, our officers monitor the roadways and make notifications as needed. The PD responded to a call at 6:50 a.m. One officer was able to arrive with little or no issue. The second officer came upon icy roadways and had difficulty getting there. This all happened in a matter of minutes. We immediately reported this to Public Works. Our officers were on their way to work. Three of them had accidents or were struck or ran off the roadway. I am not sure about other town employees (Fire Department and DPW). Thankfully none of them were seriously injured. Our midnight officer stayed on duty to assist.

Several DPW employees reported issues while attempting to sand and salt. One or two or more slid off the icy roadways and one struck a power pole. We had numerous crashes, numerous cars off the road (you can see where people ran off the roadways on many of the local streets). Most either stayed home or parked until the freezing conditions resolved.

As soon as we became aware of the situation we contacted the schools, sent out emergency alerts and even a rare ‘code red’ message to let the public and anyone who didn’t get the message know the severity of the circumstances. It became an urgent matter of public safety. With limited personnel we did our best. There were several significant calls such as EMS calls. All of the emergency services had difficulty navigating the treacherous roadways. The temperatures remained below freezing for several hours compounding matters.

The public COVID test kit distribution was slated to start today at 9:30 am. Due to the terrible weather and road conditions, we were able to post a three hour delay. CERT volunteers are members of our community that continually rise to the challenge. CERT volunteers spent the last several weeks planning for the distribution of kits as they did for the town flu clinics. Today there were 20-plus CERT volunteers at the distribution site regardless of the last-minute changes and terrible weather conditions. Wilton is very fortunate to have such a professional and dedicated group of community volunteers. They are known as one of the best CERT groups in the State of Connecticut.

I can’t stress how important it is to communicate with the public. We need the public to sign up for e-alerts through the town website. We encourage the public to share with us as well. We need their input. We can’t address what we don’t know about. I also want to stress how dedicated our town leadership is in protecting our citizens. Many of them have not had a day off or vacation in quite some time. They are 24/7 and dedicated to ensuring the safety of our community members.

A number of cars on Hurlbutt St. were basically immobilized by the icy road conditions, with several pulling over to wait out the freezing rain.

Department of Public Works Director Christopher Burney

If we put down salt and it is raining, then yes, it will just wash off. If freezing rain is predicted than we want to distribute the salt just before the water starts to freeze. The best timing is a difficult call. Sometimes the ground is so cold that rain freezes on impact. This is usually later in the winter when the ground has had days, if not weeks to freeze. Sometimes the rain is so cold that it will freeze on anything it lands on.

Our crews had several problems with the ice this morning. First, the forecasts were not a lot of help. The number of accidents on the state highways and in the surrounding communities is evidence of that. If we had known that the conditions would get so bad so quickly, then we would have brought the guys in ahead of the storm. That is actually one of the changes that we have made in the last couple of winters. We now bring the guys in ahead of the storms rather than waiting to be told that the roads are getting bad to drive on. Two of our drivers had trouble even getting into work this morning and two of our trucks slid off the roads, fortunately at very low speed with no damage or injuries. To top it off, we are down a couple of drivers because of COVID precautions.

Road closures because of accidents were a problem. Route 7 was closed for a while, and even though Wilton does not plow Rt. 7, our trucks do use it to gain access to streets that we do plow. There were some road closures on Wilton streets because of accidents, and when this happens sometimes the storm can get ahead of us, which further slows down our recovery efforts.

I realize that this morning many people were caught by surprise with the ice, just as DPW was. In hindsight it is easy to encourage people to stay home and let us get ahead of the storm. The next forecasted storm is this Friday morning. Our current forecast has snow starting around 1 a.m. and continuing until noon. Snowfall totals are predicted to be 3”-6”.  If the storm comes in strong and the heavier snow is during the overnight hours, it could be difficult to keep the roads safe while at the same time plowing out the Bus Barn and the school parking lots. I am hoping that by this time tomorrow we will have a much better idea of whether the storm will be minor or major.

The other problem with snow removal in Wilton is that when it comes to winter storms, there is not a “one size fits all” solution. The conditions on the hills and the northern part of the town can be very different to the conditions along the southern part of town.

Correction: The article originally misstated the day of the rain as Tuesday, Jan. 4; the inclement weather occurred Wednesday, Jan. 5.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Wilton did an A+ job communicating about yesterdays icy road conditions – particularly helpful to my daughter and me were the Wilton Police Dept. FB posts very early yesterday morning which kept us home and safe since we go to the Y before 8am. Particularly helpful for people who leave out of garages. Just signed up for the Town email alerts.

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