Tuesday, February 21, 2017

“In-between” weather brings its own roadway hazards

By Barbara LaBoe

Are you ready for spring yet? After a winter with severe weather across our state, it feels like it can't come soon enough — but we still have plenty of weather challenges ahead while we wait.

As the weather swings back and forth between winter and spring, it brings certain hazards, including landslides, standing water and sudden potholes along our roadway. Please be aware of these potential hazards when driving and stay extra alert during storms and their aftermath.

Landslides like this one that blocked I-5 near Woodland become more frequent when heavy storms
oversaturate hillsides, creating dangerous conditions for drivers and road workers.

Constant freezing and thawing leads to lots of potholes this
time of year, like this one on SR 14 in the Columbia River
Gorge near Stevenson. Our crews are working hard to keep
these patched but this type of damage can develop quickly.

Sometimes an unstable slope will come down during a heavy storm, but it doesn't have to be raining for landslide risk to exist. Often a hillside gives way several days after a storm, when it finally becomes too saturated from the total amount of water it has absorbed. Winds after a rainy spell can also be the final straw that causes trees and slopes to break loose.

We've had several landslides in recent weeks, including two on Feb. 16 that blocked parts of Interstate 90 near Issaquah and Interstate 5 near Woodland. Though no one was seriously hurt in either event, they both were dangerous. If you find your roadway blocked by a landslide do not attempt to drive through the debris – it can be more extensive than it looks and the hillside above could still be unstable. If your path is obstructed, call 911 and let them know you're stopped in traffic. After a landslide, our crews first must determine if the slope is stable enough for cleanup efforts to begin – we can't risk putting our crews or the public at risk of more hillside coming down. Once the assessment is complete, we then clear debris and make any repairs, working to reopen roadways as quickly as possible.

Sudden potholes
The wet weather, snow removal and temperature changes can also cause potholes or exacerbate other roadway damage, with water seeping into small cracks, freezing and expanding until it breaks apart the roadway or previous repairs. Our crews work to fill those as soon as we can — including overnight work to keep major roadways accessible — but a large pothole can develop suddenly, and it can be a challenge to keep on top of them.

In addition, the "cold patch" we use during this weather is a temporary fix until we can make permanent repairs during dry, warm summer months. That means we can sometimes fix a pothole only to have it reappear again – so we ask everyone to be alert and aware while driving and also thank you for your patience during our repairs.

Rapidly changing weather can lead to standing water and ice on roadways, as well as damage
to the roads themselves, such as this issue on SR 241 east of Yakima.

Standing water/flooding
Heavy rains can also lead to standing water on roadways. We design our roadways to prevent standing water as much as possible, but storm drains or catch basins can be blocked by debris. Our crews are always on the lookout for such problems and respond to them quickly, but please be aware of potential standing water during rainy weather. If a roadway is flooded please do not drive through the water, it only takes a couple of inches of water to float a vehicle. And never drive around road closure or flooding signs — they are there for your protection and safety.

Stay safe and call 911
If you find yourself stopped on a roadway due to a landslide, damage to your vehicle or standing water, please be extra cautious and call 911. Emergency dispatchers can alert both law enforcement and our employees, so that's the quickest way to alert road crews to a sudden hazard.

If possible, try to get to the side of a road. If you can't move out of traffic, make that immediately clear to 911 dispatchers. Please do not get out of your vehicle unless there's an additional safety risk of staying inside, and then move as quickly as possible to the side of the road and behind a barrier if possible. As always, be extra alert if walking on or near roadways and use your own best judgment of the situation — we want everyone to make it home safely each night.