Heavy rains creating havoc on area highways


A pickup truck driver from Panama City, right, watches as David Norris, center, of Shelby's Towing & Transport, loads his vehicle to be towed after being involved in a multiple-vehicle accident just north of the Newberry Road exit on the southbound lanes of Interstate 75 on a rainy morning in Gainesville, Fla., Wednesday.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, July 16, 2014 at 9:51 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 16, 2014 at 6:42 p.m.

It's been a soggy summer overall for Alachua County, and Wednesday morning's deluge created headaches for thousands of drivers — and law enforcement — all trying to cope with the miles of wet asphalt.

With rainfall amounts already at above-normal levels this year, Alachua County has received between 5 and 8 inches of rain in the past week alone — between 300 and 400 percent above normal precipitation levels for a seven-day period at this time of year, according to the National Weather Service.

And more is on the way.

The near-daily rains have caused havoc for drivers, particularly during the morning and evening commutes. Wednesday was especially challenging, as rescuers responded to nearly a dozen accidents from Interstate 75 to local roads.

There were six crashes on southbound I-75 near the Newberry Road exit Wednesday morning, said Florida Highway Patrol Troop B spokeswoman Sgt. Tracy Hisler-Pace. The crashes occurred on a two-mile stretch of interstate between 8:24 a.m. and 10:41 a.m.

Two of the crashes involved a hit-and-run, Hisler-Pace said. In both incidents, a person was taken to a hospital for treatment, but none had serious injuries.

It was still misty out on I-75 around 10:30 a.m. just north of the Newberry Road exit, where a few FHP SUVs with flashing lights and several other vehicles were parked along the highway.

Jerry Kennedy, 75, of Gainesville, was waiting by the edge of the asphalt, his silver Mercedes with a smashed rear end already loaded onto a truck.

"It happened so quickly," he said as traffic whooshed by. "It knocked the wind out of me."

Kennedy had been driving to work in the rain, and traffic had stopped in front of him for another accident, Kennedy said. He slowed and got rear-ended.

"I just think stuff happens," he said.

Art Forgey, spokesman for the Alachua County Sheriff's Office, said deputies responded to nine car accidents in the county Wednesday morning, with the first report coming in just after 8 a.m. and the last at 12:28 p.m.

"It's probably a few more than a normal morning that's dry," he said. "It's definitely typically more than what we see, but it's not an outrageous number."

Forgey said that since it was raining when people left their houses, some drivers may have taken extra time and precautions. And the steady, consistent rain rather than a sudden, torrential downpour might have helped.

Typically with weather like this, where the ground is saturated and the rain isn't letting up much, the bulk of the calls the agency gets are for fallen trees and tree limbs as well as flooding, Forgey said.

Law enforcement agencies in recent weeks also have had to respond to a number of power outages that have knocked out traffic signals on heavily traveled roads, such as Northwest 39th Avenue and Main Street.

Before police or deputies can get to those locations and direct traffic, drivers must follow the state's traffic rules. For those needing a refresher, Gainesville Police Department spokesman Officer Ben Tobias said that when a traffic signal is out at an intersection, drivers need to treat it as a four-way stop.

"The biggest thing to remember is that a traffic light that is out turns into a four-way stop because people will just blow through them without realizing what's going on," Tobias said.

When a driver sees a traffic signal out farther down the road, that should also be an indication to slow down, he said.

Gainesville resident Tom Nordlie recalls hitting such a situation earlier this month on 34th Street when he was driving home one Sunday evening. He was approaching the intersection with Radio Road when he saw that traffic light go dark.

When he came up over the hill, Nordlie saw other traffic lights had gone out too. Drivers were haltingly trying to get through the intersection from every direction.

"You know, it's just every driver for themselves, basically, if there's no traffic officer there," he said.

"You've got people who are going to be more aggressive and people who are going to be more cautious, and you end up with this kind of messy interaction between all the drivers trying to get through," Nordlie said.

Figuring there was no way to get home safely going through all of the major intersections ahead, he headed back toward the University of Florida campus until he hit some traffic lights that were still operating. The detour added an extra 20 minutes to his trip home.

"It's one of those occurrences that it's impossible to predict, it's impossible to prevent and it's not possible for law enforcement to get traffic cops at every intersection the instant that they're needed," he said.

After all of the rain that has fallen in recent months, drivers by now should be used to these compromised conditions.

As measured at a rain gauge by the Gainesville Regional Airport, there has been 29.44 inches of rainfall this year through July 15 in the area, according to the NWS. That's 3.24 inches above what's considered normal.

And motorists will have plenty more opportunities to practice safe driving in the coming days and weeks. Al Sandrik, a meteorologist with the NWS, said the area should get less rain today and Friday, but storms soon will return.

The outlook is for isolated thunderstorms to continue to "train" across North Florida into the weekend and next week, with frequent lightning and heavy rain.

"It's just a pattern that we're stuck in," he said.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gainesville.com.

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