News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett B-Sides

February 2, 2011

B-SIDES: ‘Ice Drops Keep Falling on Our Heads’? Nah

TERRE HAUTE — There are no great songs about sleet.

Of course, songwriters have struck gold with every other weather event, from “A Rainy Night in Georgia” to “Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” “Like a Hurricane,” “Landslide” and “The Wind Cries Mary.” But sleet? You might as well be singing about irritable bowel syndrome.

Yet, freezing rain is what pushed this week’s winter storm into the “epic” category.

The term epic isn’t loosely used. After all, Indiana State University canceled classes and closed its central offices Tuesday as the first punch of the storm hit. “I can probably count on one hand the number of times the university has shut down or closed in my time here,” said Diann McKee, vice president of business affairs and a 24-year ISU employee, dutifully working in near solitude despite the closure.

In 1977 and ’78, massive blizzards forced ISU to close. A decade later, an ominous winter forecast prompted another closure, but that storm never materialized. Instead, ISU’s classrooms and offices stood dark while sunshine bathed the campus. “We got slayed for canceling,” recalled Teresa Exline, special assistant to the university president, referring to the public reaction. Then-President Richard Landini wasn’t thrilled either. “I can remember him coming in and being, um, somewhat upset, you might say,” McKee remembered, with a chuckle.

This week’s storm has lived up to its billing.

Late Monday and early Tuesday, the Wabash Valley got coated with an average of a quarter-inch of ice, said WTWO meteorologist Jesse Walker. (When melted, that amounts to one-third-inch of liquid. But there won’t be any melting, unfortunately, until mid-weekend, Walker said.) He called that onslaught “the opening round.”

The Round 2 action started Tuesday afternoon, with more sleet (between a half-inch and three-quarters-inch expected), followed by some snow and winds ranging from 25 to 35 mph. “Sometimes you get just an ice storm,” Walker said, “but this is an ice storm with wind.” Thus, Walker was destined to spend the night at the station for just the third time in his 25 years there.

The ice-wind combination can cause power lines, overhanging tree branches and utility poles to snap, resulting in power outages. People scurrying to their cars can slip and fall on parking lot pavement.

Not exactly the ingredients for a classic song.

Still, this storm has produced some rare images and sights. Frozen trees creaked and crackled in the wind Tuesday. Mailboxes and handrails looked glazed.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen often. Unlike most of our winter storms, this one brewed as far south as Texas, catching the southern edge of the jet stream, Walker explained. Above Indiana, temperatures at 5,000 feet (where precipitation gathers) hovered at 4 to 5 degrees above freezing, while ground temperatures of 24 to 32 degrees quickly converted that rain to ice and sleet. “This is a classic ice storm,” Walker said.

Like ISU, the Honey Creek Mall made the rare decision to close Tuesday, though Sears stayed open. Sleet, as well as snow, drove customers there. “Everybody right now is looking for generators, chainsaws and snow plows,” said Ryan Roscoe, manager of the local Sears.

Grocery stores kept busy, too, as customers bought up milk, eggs, bread and other supplies, just in case they’re stranded at home. (Later Tuesday, the Vigo County Health Department issued an advisory about food safety during power outages, reminding folks that a powerless refrigerator can only keep items, including all of those newly purchased cartons of milk and eggs, safe for about four hours. With sleet comes irony.)

The list of businesses, agencies and events closed Tuesday was long. Even hardy places such as Square Donuts and The Coffee Grounds in downtown Terre Haute decided not to open.

College basketball soldiered on Tuesday night, though. With the visiting Wichita State Shockers already in town to play host Indiana State, the Missouri Valley Conference decided the 7 p.m. WSU-ISU game would be played as scheduled in Hulman Center.

That “the-show-must-go-on” attitude prevailed during an ice storm a decade ago, when the Sycamores played Northern Iowa in tropical Cedar Falls. Inside the Panthers’ domed football/basketball stadium (the UNI-Dome), ISU was losing an ugly game. Outside, the upper Midwestern weather was uglier.

By the time the game ended and this columnist had filed his story, the gym was virtually vacant. I found an open exit, and stepped outside. Now, the UNI-Dome sits on a hill, with a sidewalk gently sloping to a parking lot down below. That walkway was a sheet of ice. I could’ve done the luge. Instead, after nearly flipping on my rear end twice, I crawled — with my laptop bag on my back — down the sidewalk to my car; the college kids standing at a nearby rec center got a good laugh out of that. I’m sure I muttered something about sleet at that moment, but it probably wasn’t in the form of a song.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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