COLUMBIA, SC — The slippery traffic disaster that turned 20-minute commutes into eight-hour treks and downtown Columbia into a parking lot for five hours in 2000 didn’t repeat itself Tuesday.
School and government officials said that was because they talked to each other and scheduled staggered releases of students and key government workers.
Roads became simply busy, not backed up, as people headed home in waves while the first of two rounds of sleet, ice – and in some places snow – headed toward the Midlands.
The wintry mix didn’t endanger travel, or mean an early end to the business day, as major roads remained in good shape and most businesses stayed open.
Fourteen years ago, Columbia police Capt. Larry Johnson was standing in the middle of a downtown street, shivering as he tried to direct traffic that was only sort of moving. Frustrated motorists yelled at him. A lot.
That experience helped him prepare others this go-round, said Johnson, who now oversees Columbia’s emergency operations center.
“We want to make sure the commute is easy and we move traffic as fast as we can,” he said as the first wave of drivers headed home before noon.
Staggering the release of schoolchildren helped, especially when parents from across the region work in downtown Columbia.
Midlands public school district officials got together on a conference call before Richland 1 and 2 and Kershaw County announced they would send students home as soon as 11 a.m.
But students in Lexington 1, Lexington 3 and Lexington 4 all stayed all day as usual, while those in Lexington 2 and Lexington-Richland 5 closed between 1 p.m. and just after 2 p.m.
Blythewood and northern Richland County saw snow and some sleet mid-morning, as did Newberry, Chapin and Prosperity, so school in those areas closed earlier. In other parts of Lexington County, it was warmer, so those districts stayed open longer.
Lexington school officials constantly scanned weather updates and checked with county public works officials on road conditions. Superintendents talked with each other on conference calls about conditions in their areas.
Lexington-Richland 5 staff members drove roads, as most district transportation officials do, to check conditions, spokesman Mark Bounds said.
The decision to end classes at least an hour sooner than normal reflected worry that roads would be perilous in late afternoon, mostly in the Chapin area, Bounds said.
“We wanted to go a full day, but it wasn’t getting warm enough,” he said.
Across Lake Murray, roads in the Batesburg-Leesville area were in good shape.
That meant no early dismissal for Lexington 3 students. “Our roads were warm enough, so there was no concern,” school spokeswoman Judy Turner Fox said.
Even when state leaders urge everyone to stay at home, decisions on early dismissals are left to local officials, said Derrec Becker of the State Emergency Management Division.
Sending employees home in advance of a storm is an individual decision for businesses, said banker Holt Chetwood, president of the board that oversees the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce.
Schools usually are “more conservative in that regard than businesses might be,” he said.
As for the next few days, Chetwood predicted it will be “wait and see what comes” for many stores and offices.
Staff writer Bertram Rantin contributed to this story.