Louisiana big chill

KEVIN McGILL, Associated Press STACEY PLAISANCE, Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Cars crashed on icy roads. The central Louisiana town of Jena got 4 inches of snow and sleet. Flights in and out of New Orleans were canceled. French Quarter streets were oddly quiet, with brass bands and other street performers staying home. State offices closed across most of the state. So did schools at all levels. The third and nastiest arctic blast of the season hit Louisiana on Tuesday.
Before an icy rain started in New Orleans, only a couple of artists were hawking work along Jackson Square's black iron fence across from Cafe du Monde, where big fabric walls protected the patio where about 100 tourists sipped cafe au lait and bit into the square fried pastries called beignets.
Jessica Blair said she and her husband, Park, left Cleveland to celebrate his 50th birthday. "And to get away from the cold weather," she said, laughing.
Lee and Virginia Holt of Wayne, Pa., on the latest stop of a car trip, walked into Cafe du Monde after finding the National World War II Museum closed. Both said they understand that the unusually icy weather poses special challenges in the deep South, especially on highways.
"We understand they don't have the equipment to prepare the roads," Virginia Holt said. Her husband added, "Nor the experience."
Central Louisiana had the heaviest snow and sleet, with 2 to 3 inches reported in Florien and Colfax and 2 inches in Dry Prong, according to the National Weather Service.
Ice closed the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, one of the world's longest bridges, and about 20 highways around the state. And, ice on streets and walks leading to ferry landings and on the boats themselves shut down service from Chalmette to Algiers and Algiers to New Orleans' east bank.
By Tuesday afternoon, only the northwest had all highways open.
The Louisiana National Guard mobilized 450 soldiers, sending crews to help grade and get ice off of roads in the Hammond and Lafayette areas.
"Everything north of I-20 is in really good shape. As soon as you get south of 20, things start to fall apart," said meteorologist Mario Valverde in the weather service's Shreveport office.
And, though much of central Louisiana was warming up Tuesday afternoon, the weather service warned that it might not melt all the snow, leaving ice after another freezing night.
State police in Central Louisiana dealt with about 20 wrecks during one two-hour span Tuesday morning. As storms moved north of Lake Pontchartrain, state police logged seven crashes. But all were minor.
"Road conditions are worse than last Friday. We're getting more ice than snow," said Trooper Scott Moreau, spokesman for Alexandria-based Troop E. "Even 5 to 10 miles an hour is a little fast for these roadway conditions."
But troopers around the state said most people seemed to be heeding advice to stay home.
The pedicabs and mule-drawn buggies that usually work the French Quarter were absent; only a few taxis cruised the streets.
Airlines made a few morning flights in and out of New Orleans. But Iftikhar Ahmad, director of Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, said airlines canceled all remaining flights Tuesday and were unlikely to fly Wednesday. The airport hopes to resume flights Thursday, he said.
The nasty weather shut down state offices in 56 of Louisiana's 64 parishes, said Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols. Only nine school systems were open Tuesday — eight in northwest Louisiana and one in the northeast. Universities and colleges also closed.
In New Orleans, the Audubon Zoo and affiliated insectarium and aquarium were closed; bus, airboat and riverboat tours were canceled. Businesses closed early if they opened at all.
By early afternoon, as sporadic sleet and bursts of cold rain began hitting the city, traffic in the Central Business District was light. Usually bustling lunch spots were either closed or sparsely populated. Most Bourbon Street clubs were still locked up. Only a couple of people were at tables in those few where music blared.
A few bundled-up stragglers wandered up and down Bourbon Street, some carrying umbrellas. But a glum hawker outside one strip joint, which had outdoor heaters near the entrance to make it more inviting, had no takers. A few doors down, a bartender who would give his name only as Chuck said he'd been sitting for two hours at a wide-open window where he was trying unsuccessfully to sell cold beer.
"On a Tuesday I can usually get a few customers, maybe 50 bucks," he said. "I've usually had a couple of customers by now."
Across the Mississippi River in the Old Point Bar, a popular watering hole in the Algiers section of New Orleans, Chad Heslin was stocking the bar while an employee opened shutters and set up tables and chairs.
"We are going to stay open," Heslin said. "Our patrons expect us to be open. We stay open as long as we can for hurricanes, so we're not too afraid of the freeze. We're going to keep the water running, and we don't expect any problems."
Regulars meet at the bar during storms and power outages, Heslin said.
"We have a small generator, but even if the power goes out, the beer's not going to get hot," he said with a laugh. "We can put candles out for light, so we've got a few contingency plans, and we don't expect any big problems. We're going to try to make it a lot of fun, let me put it that way."
Though hurricane parties are common, this may be his first freeze party, said Heslin, who took over bar operations after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Some residents spent Tuesday making last-minute preparations like wrapping pipes and covering plants.
"I've gassed up my generator, made sure all my pipes were taken care of," said New Orleans resident Ed Keller, who was taking his dog for a walk before the freezing rain started to fall Tuesday. "My wife and I went around yesterday looking for a little space heater, just in case the power goes out, so we're in pretty good shape."

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