A sense of exasperation over the nearly two-day-long closure of the Ravenel Bridge - which didn't reopen to traffic until 3:15 p.m. Thursday - was a sour note in what most people otherwise praised as a good government response to an unusually nasty bout of icy weather.
As the last of this week's ice thawed Thursday, officials already were reviewing what went right - and what could be done better next time.
They also expressed a sense of relief that the Lowcountry's icy ordeal was nowhere near as bad as Atlanta's.
While there were no schoolchildren sleeping overnight at schools or babies being born in snowbound cars, there were anecdotes of motorists needing about two hours longer to cross between Charleston and Mount Pleasant, a trip that normally takes 10 minutes.
"Is it frustrating? Absolutely," Mount Pleasant Mayor Linda Page said Thursday, but she also gave the state credit for its continuing efforts to get the Ravenel Bridge reopened.
Ravenel harder to clear
The Lowcountry has only two bridges spanning the Cooper River, a main shipping channel, and the state Department of Transportation decided to reopen the Don Holt Bridge on Interstate 526 first, on Wednesday, because it was an easier fix. It has a smaller surface area and serves as an important link with local ports, said Leland Colvin, DOT chief engineer for operations.
Because of its design, the Don Holt was able to be cleared with undiluted and more powerful "straight" salt and "straight" calcium chloride, and sand was used to soak it up, because the bridge's drainage system is a series of "weep holes" that allow water and sand to fall directly into the river below, Colvin said.
The Don Holt also is busier, with an average annual daily traffic count of 78,400 vehicles compared with 56,400 on the Ravenel Bridge.
The options were more limited on the Ravenel, because only a weaker brine solution with a low dose of calcium chloride could be used. That's because the Ravenel's surface is paved with concrete and latex and because its drainage system is closed, designed to separate oil from water. Sand used on the Don Holt to soak up melted ice would clog the Ravenel's drains, Colvin said.
While DOT treated the Ravenel with a brine solution before the storm arrived, rain fell and washed it away, Colvin said. At 3 a.m. Wednesday, the state brought in extra crews and decided to focus on clearing the Don Holt.
"That's our first responsibility, to get the interstate open," said area DOT spokesman James Law.
The Don Holt reopened at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, and after that, crews went to work on the Ravenel.
"We did take a very proactive role," Colvin said.
Still, some felt the efforts to reopen the Ravenel bridge weren't good enough.
State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, called it "absurd" that the Ravenel wasn't able to open earlier.
Meanwhile, State Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston said he did not get many calls complaining about the closed bridge.
"I believe erring on the side of safety is always the best policy," he said. "Look at the mess they had in Atlanta, and look at how the DOT handled it here."
Russell Guerard, a candidate for Limehouse's District 110 seat, said while safety must be the top concern, it's unacceptable that the bridge couldn't be cleared earlier.
"We had five days to prepare for this storm," he said. "It just seems like there's nothing that's been done, zero proactivity."
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley disagreed.
"I know DOT and their people have worked tirelessly on the matter of getting the bridge opened," he said. "I would not criticize them on their effort."
But Riley said it is important to learn from what happened on the bridge, adding, "I know DOT will come up with a plan of action for this eventuality in the future that won't allow the bridge to be out of commission for this length of time."
Page had similar praise for the state. "I think this is their first go with ice on the Arthur Ravenel Bridge (which opened in 2005)," she said. "I think a lot of lessons were learned. I'll give them credit: It's not for lack of trying."
Changes for next time
When the next ice storm arrives, the state may have heaters like those used to keep tracks clear for NASCAR races.
Lee Floyd, state bridge maintenance engineer, said the DOT applied a saltwater solution that was 25 percent calcium chloride to speed up melting of ice on the Ravenel Bridge.
At noon Thursday, DOT headquarters in Columbia said it hoped the bridge would reopen for afternoon rush hour. The bridge reopened at 3:15 p.m., but officials said it could close again if freezing temperatures return.
The bridge's bike and pedestrian lane also was closed because of the threat of icicles falling from the cables, and it remained closed indefinitely after the bridge's travel lanes reopened.
Although DOT clears the bridges, local law enforcement makes the decision to reopen them, Law said.
On the Ravenel, the ice had started to turn to slush by late Thursday morning, but there were still some problem spots, Floyd said. "You don't want anybody hitting a patch of ice and losing control," he said.
The salt solution used to melt ice has a corrosive effect on the Ravenel deck. For that reason, DOT planned to wash it away Thursday night and sweep the deck. The work would be done when bridge traffic is at a minimum, Floyd said.
The Ravenel Bridge has a greater risk for icing because it is closer to the coast and more open to the elements. The steep grade of the Ravenel is another concern when it comes to ice and travelers, he said.
Ice will remain on the bridge cable stays and towers until it melts, and possibly falls. Colvin said ice had not been observed above the travel lanes.
The DOT is looking into buying two high-temperature blowers for $115,000 each to melt ice. The blowers clear a path 8 to 12 feet wide, Floyd said.
As South Carolina thawed, delays around the Ravenel Bridge - and a handful of minor injuries from fender-benders - shaped up as some of the storm's worst aspects.
And they weren't as bad as what could have occurred.
"We couldn't have done this if people hadn't heeded the warnings that we were putting out," said Derrec Becker, spokesman for the S.C. Emergency Management Division. "Contrary to popular belief, South Carolina knows what to do in a snow storm."
Becker said the lessons learned revolve around ways to continue to improve communication between the state, its 46 counties, school districts and others with a role to play.
"Fortunately, this was not as bad as it could have been, but it helps prepare us for an even worse disaster," he said.
The state's biggest glitch came around 7 a.m. Tuesday, when a website crashed for 15 minutes as state workers tried to figure out if they should report to work or stay home.
"We haven't identified a cause," Becker said. "We have ruled out a number of potential causes."
School districts were in contact with emergency management personnel in each county as well as the state Highway Patrol and the National Weather Service in making the decision to close schools on Thursday.
"There were several considerations, such as delayed openings or closing altogether," said Dorchester 2 spokeswoman Pat Raynor. "Not only do we have students but we have 3,000 employees, and a lot of our employees live in other counties, so by very early afternoon (Wednesday) a decision was made that there were just too many unknowns to open."
Berkeley County and Dorchester District 2 schools planned to return to a normal schedule on Friday.
Charleston Superintendent Nancy McGinley said the district decided on a two-hour delay for Friday for a few reasons, including the possibility that the Ravenel Bridge still might not be open. Employees and students cross that bridge daily.
A two-hour delay ensures that buses would be running their routes in the daylight, and that would give drivers better visibility if any icy patches still are present, she said. The temperature also would be higher by then, and buses will have more time to get started and running, she said.
They decided to shut down schools Wednesday because the Emergency Operations Center couldn't guarantee that roads would be safe for buses, McGinley said.
"I think that ended up being a good call, given where we are now," she said shortly after 1 p.m. when the Ravenel Bridge still was closed and traffic was backed up on I-526.
District officials would begin talking on Friday about potential makeup days and what options it has, she said.
Brenda Rindge and Diette C. Casey contributed to this report. Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711.
Traffic creeps along crossing the Don Holt Bridge toward North Charleston on Thursday.×
Crews with plows and salt work to clear ice from the approach ramps of the Ravenel Bridge.×
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