As the winter storm branded by meteorologists as the “polar vortex” moves out of Michigan, icy conditions should ease today, improving roads for weary commuters.
On Wednesday, freeways covered in “black ice” created slow-going on many main roads in southeast Michigan. As late as 5 p.m. Wednesday, the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office was urging drivers to stay off the roads unless necessary.
Elsewhere in southeast Michigan, road conditions gradually improved Wednesday as temperatures began to rise. At Detroit Metro Airport, the mercury climbed from a morning low of minus 6 to a high of 16 by 2 p.m., according to the National Weather Service.
The salt that crews have been working around the clock to lay on the roads was finally getting a chance to work, said Diane Cross, Michigan Department of Transportation spokeswoman.
Salt is not effective at melting ice when temperatures dip below 17 degrees, and Cross said motorists need to be prepared for some icy spots to remain.
“People have to slow down. We can’t say that enough,” Cross said. “You’ve got to assume every road is black ice.”
Cross said the cold may have caused a water main break that flooded westbound Interstate 94 near Trumbull in Detroit, closing the lanes during Wednesday evening’s rush hour.
The cold also affected pipes at the 34-story Broderick Tower, where residents were evacuated after a fire suppression line in a stairwell burst, a maintenance worker said.
Warmer temperatures should provide relief for commuters and allow road crews to use salt to melt remaining ice.
“We’re looking at highs (today) in the low 20s,” said Phil Kurmiski, a meteorologist with the weather service’s White Lake Township station. “The lows on Thursday night are going to be around 20.”
There is also a chance for light snow in the evening, although the amounts will be minimal, around a few tenths of an inch, Kurmiski said.
Friday’s forecast shows temperatures reaching about 40 degrees, with rain likely. When temperatures drop Friday night, there could be a chance of freezing rain, said Kurmiski.
The heavy snows and frigid temperatures that roared into southeast Michigan over the weekend have been responsible for at least seven deaths from vehicle crashes or heart attacks while shoveling snow. The Michigan State Police said officers have responded to 255 crashes since Monday.
One of the deaths was a 72-year-old White Lake Township man who was found frozen next to a tractor parked in his driveway. Found with a shovel in his hand, he was trying to dig out the tractor when he had a heart attack, police believe.
County road commissions say they have been working to clear main roads and are trying to catch up with residential streets as best as possible.
“It’s been a battle,” said Cindy Dingell, the deputy chief operating officer for the Wayne County Department of Public Services.
Wednesday marked the first time the crews were able to use salt effectively, she said. “With the sun out, it seems to be taking effect,” Dingell said. “We’re still urging people to be careful.”
Leo Ciavatta, maintenance superintendent with the Macomb County Road Commission, said crews were out Wednesday salting and scraping to break up packed ice that accumulated.
“It’s like night and day out there,” he said. “The roads are progressing, but we have some work to do.”
Craig Bryson, spokesman for the Road Commission of Oakland County, urged patience.
“We know there are some people who are frustrated that we haven’t gotten into their subs yet but we’re doing everything we can,” he said. “We’ve pulled trucks from traffic signal repair and road sign maintenance, put plows on their trucks and sent them into the subdivisions to clear them out.”
In Kalamazoo County, the Michigan Department of Transportation is warning motorists to be prepared for intermittent total closures on I-94 from 9 p.m. today through 6 a.m. Friday so crews can clear snow from a concrete barrier west of U.S. 131 in Oshtemo Township.
Most schools districts, including Detroit Public Schools, planned to reopen today. On Wednesday, more than 700 schools remained closed throughout southeast Michigan because of the cold and the inability of many school buses to traverse snow-clogged residential streets.