Across much of Northwest Florida, an arctic cold front that blew through in the wee early morning hours Wednesday brought with it freezing rain, ice, wind and even a few brief snow flurries.
FORT WALTON BEACH — Jerry Harris and Arch Bracher stood at the end of the Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier on Wednesday morning, bundled up in multiple jackets, fishing poles in hand.
They peered over the edge of the railing into the crystal clear Gulf of Mexico below — nothing.
“This makes good fishin’ a lot of times,” he said of the cold weather, which hovered at around 26 degrees at 11 a.m. “You need to be out here early to get the fish, though, and the bridges were closed this morning.”
Harris, who lives in Shalimar, would have had to cross the icy Shalimar and Cinco bridges and the closed Brooks Bridge to get to the pier.
Across much of Northwest Florida, an arctic cold front that blew through in the wee early morning hours Wednesday brought with it freezing rain, ice, wind and even a few brief snow flurries. Law enforcement agencies across the region scrambled to secure bridges and evaluate icy roads, beginning to issue bridge closure notifications at about 6:30 a.m.
In Navarre, 36-year-old Edward Santos of Milton was traveling northbound on State Road 87 when he hit a patch of ice, causing his vehicle to careen into a roadway milling machine before coming to a rest. Santos was pronounced dead, according to the Florida Highway Patrol, and his death is being investigated as a traffic homicide.
Only two ice-related accidents were reported in Okaloosa County, one on Cinco Bridge and one on Brooks Bridge, both minor. In the Brooks Bridge accident, the driver of an F-150 truck trying to cross the icy bridge lost control of his vehicle and slid down the small hill, striking another F-150 truck traveling westbound. It was a low-speed accident and no injuries were reported, according to authorities.
No ice-related accidents were reported in Walton County.
Brooks Bridge, the southbound lanes of the U.S. Highway 331 bridge, the Rocky Bayou bridge and Cinco bridge were all closed for no more than two hours by local authorities due to icing. Motorists were also put on notice about icy conditions on the Destin bridge, Shalimar Bridge and State Road 85 north of Crestview and the Blackmon area.
Eddie Elmore, spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol, said the decisions to close the bridges were “not made lightly.”
“We had to weigh the safety of the motorists. That’s always our priority,” Elmore said in an email. “We use the ‘family judgment’ as a rule: Would we want our family members traveling across that bridge? If the answer is no, then we close the bridge.”
Elmore said lessons learned from the January 2014 ice storm aided in troopers’ decision-making this time around.
“During the ice storm in 2014, we had to close the interstate from Pensacola to Tallahassee. We now have extra staffing on the roadways so that we are better able to respond to ice conditions,” he said. “The Florida Department of Transportation now has the capability to pre-treat the bridges with de-icing agents, which began yesterday.”
Preparations for the winter storm were set into motion on Tuesday across much of Northwest Florida. Schools and government agencies began announcing closures in anticipation of what forecasters said could be up to a half inch of snow or ice on the ground. Though those predictions didn’t pan out nearly like some expected, schoolchildren and government workers from Santa Rosa to Walton counties enjoyed a “snow day,” regardless of the lack of actual snow.
Lyndsey Laborde, a sophomore at Fort Walton Beach High School, said she was “disappointed” there was no snow, but said she was glad for the snow day because “it would have been a little stressful getting to school” with all the ice on the roads.
“It’s been a very relaxing snow day,” she said of her day off. “I’ve just been catching up on my homework and seeing friends, stuff like that. I actually enjoy the cold weather, so it’s kind of nice to have something different than heat.”
Gianna Derosa, an 11-year-old sixth-grader at Liza Jackson Preparatory School, said she had a good time on her off day playing volleyball and watching a movie, but there was one thing missing.
“I wish there was snow because the snow day would be more fun,” she said. “We could have had snowball fights and made snow angels.”
Schools are set to reopen Thursday, but all outdoor activities in Okaloosa County are canceled.
Throughout the day Wednesday, as the sun came out and thawed the ice but freezing temperatures lingered, Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office deputies continued to patrol area bridges and encouraged motorists to slow down. OCSO spokeswoman Michele Nicholson even said people were going out of their way to deliver hot drinks and snacks to deputies who were standing outside in the cold monitoring traffic.
"That certainly was heartwarming on such a frigid day," she said.
Nicholson added that while things went smoothly for the most part, one major problem the agency encountered was people sharing incorrect information on weather conditions and road closures.
“Some folks were inadvertently sharing misinformation, or frequently outdated information, on social media,” she said in an email. “We always encourage everyone to monitor official sources and look for the latest posts so you don’t retweet or share outdated information, since that can cause unnecessary confusion.”
Overall, though, Nicholson said the area handled the deep freeze well.
“Law enforcement and others were helping to monitor the situation, and FDOT crews were on hand to work to de-ice any problem areas as quickly as possible,” she said. “There were no major issues that developed.”