As a nasty winter storm bore down on the Lowcountry on Feb. 10, emergency and elected officials huddled inside Charleston City Hall to figure out what to do if clinging ice once again shut down the Ravenel Bridge, disrupting the lives of thousands of motorists.
Ten days before, authorities were caught off guard when they reopened the span after another storm, unaware there was thick ice lurking on the bridge's upper reaches. As that ice melted, frozen chunks cascaded onto passing cars, smashing windshields and rattling drivers.
Not only had police been unaware that falling ice was even a possibility on the Ravenel Bridge, state transportation officials had no strategy in place for removing the threat, other than waiting it out. What's more, local officials were unsure just who had the expertise and authority to shut down and reopen the span if problems cropped up again.
Those revelations are contained in dozens of emails The Post and Courier obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests submitted to the state Department of Transportation, the South Carolina Emergency Management Division, the Charleston and Mount Pleasant police departments and the Governor's Office.
The emails show communication breakdowns during the first storm, in late January, between local authorities and the DOT, and uncertainty about who should be involved in the discussions to close the bridge to traffic.
They also show that local, county and state officials worked to close those gaps before the second storm struck and tested the patience of citizens still weary from inconveniences imposed by the first so-called "Ravalanche" on the bridge.
The emails show more communication and coordination among the various players during the second storm, as DOT staffers scoured the Internet and reached out to experts around the country for possible solutions to the icing problem. None were immediately found.
Though the 51-hour closure during the second storm exceeded the length of the first shutdown, emails indicated there was less confusion on the ground and fewer false reports and mixed messages relayed to the public.
During the severe weather, the Governor's Office was in regular communication with officials regarding the Ravenel Bridge. And it worked with DOT on a review of how things were handled during the first ice storm, the emails show.
A Jan. 30 email from DOT to the governor's Deputy Legal Counsel Rebecca Schimsa offers a comment on the mood here.
"People in Charleston are starting to get feisty about the Ravenel Bridge - This just in...."
The comment is in the email subject line and refers to a story on The Post and Courier's website about the DOT being "hopeful" that the Ravenel Bridge will open by rush hour.
Acting Secretary of Transportation Christy Hall summed up the agency's response to the first storm in a Feb. 17 email to staffers, noting that "communication deficiencies and confusion over anti-icing strategies became evident during this storm."
Hall pointed out that the first storm was a first-of-its-kind event for the bridge since it opened in 2005, and that steps had been taken to improve the agency's response.
"Main message is lessons learned and setting stage for path forward," she stated.
Hall didn't mention, however, a rather foreboding assessment offered by a top official with the company that designed, tested, supplied and installed the bridge cables.
Drew Micklus, vice president and chief operating officer of Freyssinet Inc., told a representative of the company that manages the bridge for the DOT that he had never heard of a situation as severe as what happened Jan. 31 on the Ravenel. He was unsure what could be done to stop it from occurring again, he told John Bergman, project manager for Infrastructure Corporation of America, in an email.
"(Micklus) is of the opinion that it is almost impossible to predict and harder to prevent," Bergman told the DOT.
An unexpected threat
The January storm was the first time the bridge had been subjected to large amounts of ice and extended, extreme low temperatures. Attention was initially focused on the roadbed itself and what efforts the DOT had taken to prep and clear the span as snow, sleet and ice collected in a slippery crust on its surface.
Mount Pleasant and Charleston officials opted to pull the plug on bridge travel on Jan. 29, due to safety concerns.
Motorists grumbled and groused as they had to reroute to Interstate 526 and beyond to travel between East Cooper and Charleston. People quickly realized just how central the Ravenel is to Holy City transportation as alternative routes virtually became parking lots jammed with traffic.
"A real disservice has been done to the people of Mount Pleasant these last two day (sic)," one motorist complained on Twitter on Jan. 30. "No excuse for the bridge still closed."
"Maybe Charleston needs to buy a jet dryer like they use in Nascar to thaw the #ravenel," another Twitter user suggested. "Just melt the ice."
The real surprise came the next morning, however, when "ice bombs" were reported falling from the cables onto cars below, prompting authorities to close the bridge once again, fueling even more frustration.
"We just had to shut the bridge down due to huge chunks of ice falling on cars," Mount Pleasant Police Chief Carl Ritchie wrote to a lawyer friend in an email that morning. "I think we are up to six cars damaged so far. NO KIDDING."
As authorities scrambled to get a handle on the situation, the DOT got another gut punch as news surfaced that agency director Robert St. Onge had resigned following a drunken-driving arrest at 8 a.m. in Columbia.
That afternoon, Mount Pleasant Town Councilman Mark Smith wrote to Town Administrator Eric DeMoura and Mayor Linda Page to express concern that the media and public might attempt to blame the town's police for the bridge closure. He suggested that the town "attempt to get ahead of the expected 'blame game' and appear as leaders rather than followers in the debate" by hosting public forums with the city of Charleston, in which people could get answers from the DOT.
DeMoura was cool to the idea, replying by email that hosting such a forum might be "creating an issue when there isn't one." He noted that Mount Pleasant officials would be the only guaranteed participants. "We would be taking the mud potentially for others and we could provide no good information as we are not expert on bridge icing. Pavement, etc."
By the time the bridge finally reopened, it had been out of commission for a total of 50 hours, including eight hours due to falling ice.
Municipal, county and state officials decided to gather Feb. 10 at Charleston City Hall to air concerns and hash out a plan for future storms, like one already headed toward the area. The same day, a state agency conference call was scheduled to discuss Governor's Office concerns about seeing improved DOT operations for the Ravenel Bridge.
A few days before the meeting, Charleston Deputy Police Chief Tony Elder recommended to his boss, Chief Greg Mullen, that DOT representatives have an earlier and more active role in assessing whether the bridge should be closed during bad weather, because they had expertise in such matters. He suggested the DOT have people on hand in the local emergency command center to assist with the effort.
"SCDOT should have the ultimate responsibility in coordination with us to determine if a bridge can be reopened when it is closed for things like ice/snow storms or any type of structural issues," Elder said.
Elder also suggested a more coordinated approach to releasing information to the public to avoid misinformation from getting out, such as one inaccurate account that indicated Charleston police had been aware of the potential for ice falling beforehand. At a couple of points, various agencies also had offered conflicting reports as to whether the bridge was open or not.
During the City Hall meeting, Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon also suggested that the county's emergency operations center was under-utilized in decisions to close or reopen the bridge. "Sheriff Cannon explained more than once that the EOC is there to coordinate these kinds of decisions," an Emergency Management Division email stated.
As for DOT, its representatives told officials that the agency was unable to treat Ravenel Bridge cables for ice build-up. The only course of action was to detect the ice and close the bridge, the agency said.
In the end, the various parties agreed to work more closely together during the next storm, which struck Feb. 12, and again shut down the bridge. They agreed that reopenings of the bridge would be based on a consensus of opinion, using engineering and public safety viewpoints, after all had a chance to survey the conditions.
Emails show the various parties reaching out to one another to coordinate their responses to the situation and keep the public informed. Still, not everyone was happy.
"Shutting down the main route of transportation and effectively shutting down half of the city is poor effort from our municipalities," one resident fumed on Twitter. "We can design an engineering marvel, yet can't come up with a solution for removing ice? Either a major oversight or lack of action."
DOT emails, however, show the agency actively reaching out to officials in other states for possible solutions to ice build-up on Ravenel Bridge cables.
As it turned out, ice on bridge cables that falls and hits cars is not a problem unique to the Ravenel Bridge. The same thing happened in December on a new bridge in Vancouver, British Columbia. There, a system to brush and scrape away cable snow and ice was installed.
Lee Floyd, state bridge maintenance engineer, contacted Viktor Petrenko, a professor of engineering at Dartmouth College who developed a technology called pulse electrothermal de-icing.
Petrenko sent two videos to Floyd that showed how the technology works on bridge cables. He offered further assistance if the DOT wanted a feasibility report on using it on the Ravenel Bridge.
"We haven't done anything with that," Floyd told The Post and Courier during a recent interview. "We're still looking at options to see what's available and the cost."
Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711
Ice formed on the cables of the Arthur Ravenel Bridge during the second storm and kept the bridge closed for 51 hours.×
Regina Yost, 49, of Mount Pleasant, was driving across the Ravenel Bridge en route to a music rehearsal in downtown Charleston when a chunk of ice fell from the spanís cables and smashed the windshield of her red Honda Civic. She was shaken but unhurt.×
The Ravenel Bridge was closed early Feb. 12 because of ice, according to Charleston County dispatchers.×
The Ravenel Bridge remained closed Jan. 29.×