On the night of Jan. 28, the eve of the Great Charleston Snowpocalypse, Crazy Carl wasn't having any of it. The colorful proprietor of Crazy Carl's Cab Service and a onetime candidate for mayor of Mt. Pleasant, Carl Carroll says most of his cab fares come from folks looking for a ride to their East Cooper homes after a night of boozing it up in downtown Charleston.
But that wasn't happening Tuesday night. Or Wednesday, for that matter. A cold snap had iced the iconic eight-lane, two-mile Ravenel bridge that looms 200 feet over the Cooper River and connects the suburbanites of Mt. P to the Holy City. The bridge, over which 56,400 cars cross a day, was closed and stayed closed from Tuesday until around 3:15 p.m. on Thursday. But come Friday morning, the bridge closed again after ice chunks fell from the cables onto cars, smashing at least one car windshield. Only one other bridge, the Don Holt on Interstate 526, crosses the Cooper River from Mt. Pleasant. A busier bridge than the Ravenel — about 78,400 cars cross it daily — the Don Holt was basically a two-day traffic jam.
"I had probably 30 people calling me from downtown wanting to come home," Carroll says. "I explained to them that the bridges were shut down." Some told him to come get them anyway. "I had one guy — and I won't say what bar he owns — he told me to go through Monck's Corner and come get him. I'm like, uh, no ... He's one of those owners that doesn't want to pay anything to go home. It would have been a 50-mile trip for $20. No."
And so for two days, that was life for the people of Mt. Pleasant. Cut off from Charleston, they were stuck.
"I think we kind of felt like an island," says Mt. Pleasant Mayor Linda Page. "Were we trapped? At one point, of course, the only way to get over to Charleston would have been to go up Highway 1 through Cottageville. That's very problematic for our citizens and for our economy."
Page said it was too early to calculate the economic impact of the bridge closures, but since the State Port Authority shut down, the figure will likely be high. She says protecting the citizens was first and foremost in her mind throughout the snowmaggedon.
"There are lots of problems of being not able to cross the bridge," Page says. "People not being able to get to their physicians, MUSC, and people not being able to get to their jobs."
One of those people was Jordan Blanton, 24, who works for GCB Realty in North Charleston. He lives in Crickentree Apartments in Mt. Pleasant and couldn't go to work Jan. 29 using I-26 and decided against I-526 because of the traffic. So Blanton stayed home and did typical relaxing snow day things. The next day, with the bridge still closed, he started getting antsy.
"I just got back from vacation and I need to work," Blanton says. "I've been kind of stranded from my livelihood from inclement weather. It's kind of a bummer ... I'm pretty much stuck in Mt. Pleasant."
Some businesses in Mt. P decided to close, while others worked around the fact that many people who live in Charleston cross the bridge for work. Coleman Public House, for instance, stayed open even though managers had to round up servers who lived in Mt. Pleasant in to come in. "It was a very skeletal crew," says owner Brian Tanner. "People were a little stir crazy. They were just happy that we were open."
One Mt. P resident who braved the detour commute over the Don Holt, which was open Thursday morning, was Susan Spearman who works for Nelson Printing in downtown Charleston. Her typical morning commute usually takes 25 minutes. That day it took an hour and a half.
"People were driving stupid, but I just stayed steady at about 10 mph for the longest time. It was icy on the bridge, and the yahoos in their big trucks were using the truck lane. I mean pick-up trucks," she said. "They were the ones causing the problems. I was stuck in Mt. Pleasant [Wednesday] with a Bloody Mary, so I was OK."
A day home with a Bloody Mary sounds nice. And fortunately, two days effectively cut off from downtown Charleston didn't lead to any "major incidents," according to Page. No one died. She says it's the S.C. Department of Transportation's job to keep the bridges open, and she wonders what could have been done differently. Given that something like this might only happen once every five or 10 years, Page wonders, should they buy equipment they might rarely, if ever, use?
"This is the first ice incident that we've had on the Arthur Ravenel Bridge bridge so I think we've learned a lesson," she says. "I think we have to take heed to what went wrong, and I'm sure [the DOT] will offer us some insight."
One local business that might have learned a lesson from the bridge closures — and will likely be prepared to make some bank should it happen again — is Charleston Water Taxi, a service that shuffles riders to and from Mt. Pleasant and downtown Charleston. The boats aren't fully enclosed, and there's no heat, but it only takes minutes to get from downtown Charleston to Mt. P over the water. They have one large boat that holds 49 people and a smaller one that can carry 20.
"I don't think anyone was prepared for the bridge to be shut down for three days" says co-owner and captain Scott Connelly, who'd been getting phone calls from stranded Mt. Pleasanters looking for a way to get to work. The water taxi wasn't running Tuesday or Wednesday, Connelly says, because the operators couldn't get to work themselves. But next time they'll be prepared.
"If this happened again, honestly, with the few phone calls and emails that I got, we would probably try to do something," Connelly says. Asked if they'd be willing to do a late-night service for Mt. Pleasant people who want to party downtown, he laughed. "Oh, good God, I wasn't even thinking about the drinkers. I was thinking about the people who were trying to get to work."