ST. JOSEPH — Area police were busy Tuesday, Jan. 29, responding to numerous crashes, and I-94 was closed at various times after semi tractor-trailers jack-knifed as a brutal blast of high winds and cold temperatures continued to batter the region.
“The interstate is the worst, but there are a number of accidents all throughout the county,” Berrien County Undersheriff Chuck Heit said Tuesday afternoon. He said a few accidents involved injuries, but he was not aware of any fatalities or life-threatening injuries.
Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey first declared a road emergency at noon on Monday due to heavy snow, and it remained in effect all day Tuesday. Residents were requested to stay off the roads and allow snow removal crews to do their job.
“It’s been a busy time for snowplows and emergency responders,” Heit said.
Prospects were looking no better for Wednesday, with the weather forecast calling for continued high winds and punishing sub-zero temperatures.
The challenging conditions are pushing emergency responders to the limit. A St. Joseph Township Police patrol car was hit by another vehicle while handling an accident on I-94, but the officer was not injured.
Lt. Randy Leng said patrolman Eric Wolff was outside his squad car working an accident when he heard a car coming up behind him, so he jumped into a ditch to avoid being hit.
“He’s fine, luckily. He went right back to work. We’ve been on I-94 a lot today. We’ve definitely had better days,” Leng said.
Leng added that state police handled a crash on I-94 near Stevensville that involved several cars and trucks.
Heit said people should stay off the roads if they don’t need to be out.
“That’s for their own safety, and the safety of our road crews and police officers,” he said. North Berrien Fire Rescue Chief Michael Mattix said his department responded to a jack-knifed semi on I-196 Tuesday, but other than that, “We’ve actually been rather quiet.”
He attributed that to people heeding warnings and staying in, or driving carefully.
“I think what’s happened is that the word is getting out a lot better through social media and the news outlets. We’re getting a lot more proactive, and I think people are starting to understand. Stay off the roads. The crews are doing the best they can,” Mattix said.
He said that with the frigid temperatures, he is concerned about people using alternate heating methods.
“If you’re doing this, please be careful. Allow at least a three-foot clearance around space heaters and don’t overload circuits. Put a fresh air filter in your furnace, and set it at a constant temperature day and night, because the up and down is really hard on those furnaces,” Mattix said. “And never try to use your oven as a heat source. That is dangerous both from a fire standpoint and carbon monoxide poisoning.”
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency Monday night due to the sub-zero temperatures predicted over the next few days.
Area schools were closed again Tuesday, with many districts taking the unusual step of announcing they would remain closed today and Thursday.
He said the sheriff’s road emergency does not mean people are not allowed to drive, although they are encouraged not to. He said the governor’s emergency declaration included no protective orders. Minus those, police cannot ticket people for driving, Heit said.
The Berrien County Courthouse was closed Tuesday, along with all other non-essential county offices.
St. Joseph Public Safety Director Steve Neubecker said roads in the city remained snow-covered and slippery due to the blowing snow and frigid temperatures.
“But we’ve actually fared pretty well so far today,” Neubecker said Tuesday afternoon. “We’ve had a few accidents but nothing serious. We’ve had more than normal, but not what I expected.”
He attributed that to a lot of businesses being closed and most people staying home. His advice: “Slow down, and stay home if you can.”
Many area schools, offices, government offices and businesses were closed Wednesday, and likely into Thursday. Even the Soup Kitchen in Benton Harbor announced on Tuesday that it would be closed Wednesday and Thursday, due to the dangerous weather conditions.