Winter weather, traffic incidents create perfect storm for end-of-year I-10 gridlock

By Shanna Cummings

A jackknifed semi and treacherous driving conditions locked down a 25-mile stretch of Interstate 10 in the Van Horn area during last week’s winter storm, stranding holiday travelers on the road and testing the mettle of area emergency dispatch and services.

Chief Dispatcher Jennifer Velez called the circumstances the “worst weather conditions and travel problems occurring in a very short period of time.”

The jackknifed semi on Wednesday afternoon caused accidents and bumper-to-bumper stalled traffic between mile markers 170 and 148, the longest stretch of stalled traffic in the area’s history, Velez said. Meanwhile, heavy snow continued to fall and roads iced over. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) closed that portion of the highway around 10 p.m. until road crews could clear the snow and ice. Traffic was still slow-going at 6:30 a.m.

The handful of Culberson County personnel handling and coordinating 911 services that night received between 800 and 1,000 calls for assistance, starting just before 3 p.m. on Dec 30 with a passenger van/semi collision. Three EMS teams responded to 20 calls for medical attention ranging from whiplash and anxiety to Braxton Hicks contractions, or false labor pains, but no major injuries.

Many drivers couldn’t move once traffic backed up. TxDOT’s Twitter feed described “miles of stranded sleeping drivers,” with road teams having to wake them up to move their vehicles so crews could remove the snow and ice from the road. Travelers live-Tweeting the event expressed confusion about the cause of the backup and concern about running out of gas.

Hotel rooms quickly filled up, and exhausted drivers looking for refuge were directed to Warming Centers set up at the Van Horn Convention Center, with local churches and the Boys and Girls clubs also on standby. City and Convention Center employees offered shelter, warmth, cots, and food to around 30 people. Convention Center employee Brenda Hinojos, said most of the travelers just needed a safe place to sleep for a few hours. The center offered light breakfast and stayed open through lunch on Dec 31 to allow plenty of time for the road to clear and traffic to start flowing. Westbound travelers were able to leave by 10 a.m. and eastbound by noon.

The warming station set up in the Marfa High School gym had 45 registered travelers, with around 15 more vehicles parked in the parking lot, according to Marfa ISD superintendent Oscar Aguero. Churches and families in Marfa also opened their doors to travelers caught in the storm.

Culberson County 911 received weather-related calls until around 1:30 p.m. on Dec 31, but hazardous driving conditions remained for parts of I-10 east of Van Horn into Friday.

Velez said she is “most grateful to the 911 team, including Mary Ann Baeza, Janette King, K’Cee Romero, Felix Gonzalez, and Adalinda Sambra, who worked exceptionally well under pressure.”