The “polar vortex” that has descended upon the region caused Hancock County Sheriff Michael Heldman to issue a Level 3, the highest weather emergency alert, at 6:15 a.m. Several other counties also went to Level 3.
But what makes a Level 3?. Here’s what the sheriff had to say this morning.
Road conditions reported by deputies factor heavily into level alert decisions, but the needs and reports of other government officials, school district administrators, and business owners do too. Everyone from the Findlay-Hancock County Chamber of Commerce to the county engineer provides valuable input.
The timing of level issuances depends on weather conditions inside the city and out in the county. Heldman said blowing and drifting is more severe in the country than it is in Findlay this morning. Freezing rain yesterday evening also formed an ice crust that is now buried beneath powder, making driving more dangerous. Also, the storm “bogged down” and delayed timing by about 12 hours, said Heldman.
The last time Heldman recalled issuing a Level 3 was for a short time during one late January day in 2012 “so that ODOT could get roads opened.
Heldman said he weighed the opinions of other elected county officials, including the commissioners and judges, when making the decision yesterday to close county offices today, before he issued a Level 3. As with businesses and other governments, the sheriff said he was looking out for the safety of his own workforce.
Ohio law gives counties the right to cite “non-essential, non-emergency” drivers who are traveling during a Level 3, but Hancock County doesn’t favor using that deterrent. “Here, we have always said, ‘if you can’t go somewhere safely, then don’t.’ Now, if you’re out there doing donuts and stupid stuff like that and putting lives at risk, then we’re going to cite you,” he said.
County roads are drifting over this morning as fast as plows clear them. “If it quit blowing right now, within five or six hours we’d have the roads open” and the Level 3 downgraded, said Heldman at breakfastime. “But it’s very possible it could stay at Level 2 or 3 for the next 24 hours.”
Weather alerts are primarily issued because of significant snow, ice and water. But Heldman said the bitter cold will also factor into his decisions about level alerts. He noted some forecasts have predicted wind chills below negative 40 degrees overnight.
Level alerts only work as long as they’re heeded. There will always be some who push their luck, and that has happened with this storm.
“We’ve had some people stranded, that have needed tows. No injuries yet,” Heldman said. “I think it’s called common sense. If you look out your window, and there’s a lot of snow and ice, and there’s been a level alert issued, don’t go out.”