No roadways in our area saw the effects of Mother Nature worse than Interstate 94 and Interstate 196 in northern Berrien County.
Around 9:14 a.m. Tuesday, the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department shut down all westbound traffic along I-94 and all southbound traffic along I-196 until 11:08 a.m. The closures followed about a dozen slide-offs and a large pile-up scattered between mile marker 34 near Benton Charter Township and Exit 39 in Coloma.
According to the National Weather Service, wind gusts topping 45 mph blew heavy snow across the four lane interstate, causing severe whiteout conditions.
"The combination of low visibility and snow showers, snow covered thick roads and strong west winds will cause difficult driving conditions,” a radio broadcasted NWS message repeated for the better part of Tuesday morning and afternoon.
Cautiousness was also the word police tried paving into the heads of drivers taking to the pavement.
"We caution drivers to drive slow and really take the weather conditions and road conditions into consideration when you're driving on a day like today,” Berrien County Emergency Management Coordinator Capt. Corey Burks said.
In a dimly light square room, about nine miles from Exit 39, seven 911 dispatchers answered a barrage of emergency calls from stranded drivers. The call volume did not die down for nearly two hours.
“First responders were on-the-scene reporting there were whiteout conditions. They saw several vehicles in the ditch and two jackknifed semis. So they needed additional manpower to help get those cars cleared, take accident reports and get the highway opened back up,” Burks added.
Oddly enough, Tuesday's ripple effect sat along the same stretch of I-94 as the historic Feb. 7, 2003 pile-up. NewsChopper 16 flew over the scene in the hours after that unprecedented chain reaction, vividly showing 75 vehicles strewn about the Chicago-Detroit link, for more than a mile. One person was killed and another 47 injured.
“The accident closed down a 12-mile stretch of the expressway for over 10 hours. Some vehicles caught fire during the whiteout, and some were so badly damaged that the cars had to be cut apart to extract the occupants,” a National Weather Service employee said in an article posted to the organization’s website.
In the Feb. 2003 case, a powerful lake effect band dropped two inches of snow per hour on Southwest Michigan. Total accumulation was around a foot. In comparison, three inches of snow fell this Tuesday, with 20 vehicles damaged and six people taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.
"We have certain areas on I-94 that are more susceptible to the wind and snow that causes whiteout conditions. It’s that blowing-drifting type of snow. So we need to make sure people slow down, leave enough room between the person in front of you and yourself, and make sure to really pay attention to the roadways,” Burks concluded.
Tuesday marked the third time Berrien County has shut down I-94 this winter.
Police closed both directions on Jan. 31, when nine tractor trailers and 12 cars collided near Paw Paw and then again in December near Exit 23 in Stevensville. Deputies say that closure figure is not out of-the-ordinary.