2018-02-01 / Front Page

Falling Ice Prompts Bridge Closure

New Text System Alerts Motorists
By Stephanie Fortino

Falling ice from Mackinac Bridge cables and towers Friday, January 26, closed it to traffic for nearly 20 hours. The bridge was closed by 11:35 a.m. Friday and by about 5:30 p.m., the Mackinac Bridge Authority (MBA) announced it would remain closed overnight. The bridge was reopened to traffic about 7:20 a.m. Saturday, January 27.

The cables and towers were coated in ice following a freezing rain Monday, January 22.

After the bridge reopened Saturday morning, it took until about 10:10 a.m. for traffic to clear. Every toll booth lane was open during that time. MBA Executive Secretary Robert Sweeney noticed there were many snowmobile trailers headed north to the Upper Peninsula Saturday morning.

There were no injuries when it reopened, but a snowmobile trailer in a northbound lane caught fire. Two lanes of traffic were closed for about 20 minutes while the tire fire was put out and the vehicle was removed from the road.

The announcement Friday evening that the bridge would not reopen before morning sent a surge of people to motels in St. Ignace and Mackinaw City. Stranded travelers also spent the night in their vehicles in parking lots, waiting for the bridge to reopen.

The Marquette High School wrestling team was among those who couldn’t reach their destination and ended up spending the night at St. Ignace Middle School. Superintendent Don Gustafson said the team arrived in St. Ignace after school got out for the day, and the athletes spent time working out while anticipating the bridge would reopen. Since they had to be in Gaylord Saturday morning for a wrestling meet, the team sought accommodations at the school. The Bavarian Haus Lakefront Inn donated sheets and blankets for the team to use for the night.

“They were very respectful and very appreciative,” Mr. Gustafson said of the team.

The Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in St. Ignace also opened to travelers at about 9:30 p.m. Friday, said Pastor David Tielbar, with food and sleeping areas available for those who were without accommodations. Even though no travelers stopped at the church Friday evening, Rev. Tielbar said the church will open to travelers during similar events like bridge closures in the future.

Several homeowners also notified 911 that they would take stranded motorists, if necessary.

During bridge closures, Mackinac County Emergency Manager Mike Kasper monitors 911 calls, and if people are in distress, he will find a place for them to stay. He also coordinates with the Red Cross to provide emergency shelters, if needed, especially to ensure people aren’t left in the cold.

Throughout the evening, Mr. Kasper monitored available hotel rooms, and he said there were some rooms available in St. Ignace. Friday’s closure didn’t qualify as an emergency, he said, since the roads were still passable. The shelter wasn’t opened for the Marquette wrestling team, he said, because they could have driven home that evening.

If temperatures are subzero, roads aren’t safe to travel on, and hotels are filled, Mackinac County Emergency Management would open a temporary emergency shelter at Little Bear East Arena with the help of the Red Cross. There are financial and volunteer constraints to consider when opening an emergency shelter, he said.

“This truly was a great inconvenience, but it doesn’t meet the life threatening, displaced people emergency,” he said. “The roads were passible and there were places to go. We want to make sure we don’t circumvent the private sector with the government.”

In 2007, Mr. Kasper opened Little Bear East Arena as an emergency shelter during a Mackinac Bridge closure.

“It requires a lot of resources to open the shelter,” he said. “If we’re going to do it, we want to make sure we can support it and provide the resources they need.”

Following the freezing rain Monday, MBA monitored weather conditions during the week and had extra staff on hand in case a closure became necessary. Temperatures were in the 40s and the skies were sunny Friday, causing the ice to melt and fall. The closure was longer than expected, said Mr. Sweeney, as ice continued falling off the main cables into Friday afternoon and evening.

“It was surprising that it took so long,” he said.

While the bridge was closed, toll collectors worked in the MBA office, taking calls and answering questions from the public. The MBA received tens of thousands of calls, Mr. Sweeney said, and most people inquired when the bridge would re- open. It was impossible to predict.

Bridge closures due to falling ice are becoming more common, he said, possibly because of milder winters. Last year, the bridge was closed three times for falling ice, the same for 2016. That’s in stark contrast to the trend over the last 15 years, when the bridge has only closed a total of 12 times because of ice.

“It’s never fun to close the bridge,” Mr. Sweeney said. “It’s an impact to our staff and it’s an impact to motorists.”

More commonly, the bridge is partially closed when winds exceed 50 miles per hour, which happens a couple of times a year. Whiteout conditions on the causeway and toll plaza also close the bridge more frequently, when a southwest wind blows snow off the ice.

During events like a closure of the Mackinac Bridge, people can call 211 to ask questions. The system is “like a phone bank for information flow,” Mr. Kasper said, where people call and talk to live operators who have information directly from emergency managers. The 211 system is staffed 24 hours and has been used during power outages to disseminate information to the public.

The MBA also notified its customers of the bridge closure through the 911 emergency text messaging system. MBA used the service during the 2017 Labor Day Bridge Walk and resurrected it last week in anticipation of a closure after Monday’s ice storm. More than 10,000 people have signed up for emergency text alerts about bridge closures, Mr. Sweeney said.

“It’s a quick way to get our message out all at once,” he said.

The system will continue to be used to update travelers of poor weather or high winds, which can affect bridge crossings. Mackinac County Emergency Management sends the updates directly to cell phones. While the MBA posts updates to its Web site, the text messaging system is more easily accessible for those on the road, Mr. Sweeney said.

The messaging system is free to those who wish to participate, although regular text messaging rates may apply.

To sign up for the text alert system, text “MacBridge” to 67283. Users should receive two replies when singing up for the system. The first reply will say, “Welcome to Mac Bridge. Reply STOP MacBridge to Cancel. MSG and Data Rates May Apply MSG Frequency Varies,” verifying participation in the text alerting system. A second reply will follow: “Welcome to the Mackinac Bridge Text Alerting System. To opt out of this alerting system reply STOP MacBridge.”

At its peak, about 17,000 people signed up for the alerts during the 2017 Labor Day Bridge Walk. A separate text update program will be available prior to the 2018 Annual Bridge Walk.

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