By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
Gov. Mike Pence repeated calls for Hoosiers to stay off snow-packed roads and remain at home, sheltering from dangerous sub-zero temperatures gripping much of the state, during a Monday press conference.
“This is a very serious time in the life of our state – a very serious time for the communities in our state,” said Pence, who held the briefing in a basement room in Statehouse with emergency officials. “We are still in the midst of a very dangerous winter storm.”
Schools in much of the state were canceled Monday. Portions of several interstates remained closed because of wind gusts that made them hazardous. Another 22 state highways were closed.
As of Monday morning, about 46,500 households in Indiana were without power, and utilities were warning that it would take several days to get those homes back on line.
Officials urged residents to stay home for at least another day, and businesses to remain closed while the deep freeze continues.
Pence said people who heed those warnings minimize the potential damage to life and limb. As of Monday morning, only one traffic death had been attributed to Sunday’s snowfall, which reached 15 inches in the northern and central parts of the state.
A second death was attributed to weather Monday morning, when an Indianapolis woman had a heart attack while venturing into temperatures that were 15 degrees below zero.
Pence said both deaths are tragic but the toll could have been higher had residents ignored warnings that began issuing from the governor’s office last Friday.
“Our greatest natural resource in the state of Indiana is our common sense,” he said before adding an oft-repeated warning: “Hoosiers need to know, we’re not out of this yet.”
The combination of heavy snow, gusting winds, and artic temperatures nearly paralyzed much of the state. As of Monday morning, 52 counties had issued “travel warnings,” forbidding all but emergency vehicles from the roads. Another 27 counties declared disaster emergencies. Pence said that number would likely grow.
More than 300 state troopers have been working with nearly 250 National Guard members to rescue stranded motorists. They’ve received more than 2,000 calls for help since the storm hit and continue to respond to residents who need transportation to shelters that have been set up around the state.
Road crews have left a hard snow pack on most roads – instead of scraping down to pavement – because of the cold temperatures, said Department of Transportation head Karl Browning. Road salt only works when it’s about 20 degrees or warmer, he said, so the snow pack helps with traction, though it is still dangerous.
“It’s incredibly important today to ask people to please stay away from the roads if you can possibly do it,” said Browning. “We are acutely aware of the amount of inconvenience to every citizen in the state. It’s not our objective to keep these roads close. It’s our objective to keep these roads open.”
State Police Superintendent Doug Carter repeated Pence’s call to stay off the roads, unless travel is urgent. He pleaded with motorists to not drive around barriers set up on closed roads.
“You endanger not only yourself, but those that might have to come help you,” he said.
State government offices were closed Monday, and Pence had yet to make a decision about when they will reopen. The General Assembly was supposed to begin Monday but delayed its session – tentatively until 3:30 p.m. Tuesday – because of the storm.
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.