Commutes turn into hours-long ordeals

Feb. 12, 2014 @ 07:39 PM

RALEIGH — Soo Keith left work in Raleigh a little after noon thinking she would have plenty of time to get home before the worst of the snow hit.

She was wrong.

She was able to drive only a few miles before she was forced to abandon her car and start walking, a blanket draped over her shoulders. Making it home more than four hours later, she compared her journey to the blizzard scene from "Dr. Zhivago."

"My face is all frozen, my glasses are all frozen, my hair is all frozen," said Keith, a 48-year-old mother of two. "I moved here from Chicago. I know how to drive in the snow. But this storm came on suddenly and everyone was leaving work at the same time. And there aren't enough plows to clear the snow."

As a third winter storm in as many days slammed into North Carolina, commutes that typically took minutes turned into hours-long ordeals. The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning lasting into Thursday covering 95 of the state's 100 counties.

The storm had been forecast well in advance. Still, within an hour of the first flakes falling main arteries in the state's urban centers turned into skating rinks clogged with people trying to get home.

Traffic cameras trained on roadways in Charlotte and Raleigh showed traffic backed up for miles, reviving images of the mass paralysis that struck Atlanta two weeks ago. Many were already comparing the winter weather to big storms that hit the state in 2002 and 2005, resulting in a massive city-wide gridlock, children stranded at schools and power outages lasting more than a week.

Between midnight and 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, state troopers responded to 1,360 calls for service across the state. They typically handle about 800 calls a day.

Utilities reported about 100,000 power outages statewide — most in the state's southeastern corner, where ice was snapping tree limbs and power lines.

Up to 10 inches was possible in the Asheville area, where heavy snow has already begun to fall. Up to 11 inches of snow was possible around Charlotte, with as much as 10 inches in the Greensboro and Winston-Salem areas. As much as 6 inches of snow could fall around Raleigh.

Only an inch or so of accumulation is expected in the eastern part of the state, but much of that was expected to be ice.

The sudden seriousness of the storm caught even Yankee transplant Caitlin Palmieri off guard. The worker at a bead store in downtown Raleigh said snow was already sticking to the roads by the time a co-worker called to advise her to head home as soon as possible.

"I pulled out of the parking lot, and I could feel my wheels spinning immediately," said Palmieri, 26, who is spending her third winter in Raleigh after moving South from Clinton, N.Y. "It seemed like every other car was getting stuck, fishtailing."

She was forced to park her car and walk back to work, unsure where she would spend the night.

Emergency shelters were opening statewide. A suburban mall in Durham announced it would keep its doors open as late for stranded motorists coming from nearby Interstate 40.

Authorities said a woman died in a weather-related traffic accident in Moore County when a car in which she was a passenger struck a tree. A state Highway Patrol trooper was hospitalized after his parked cruiser was struck by another car.

Gov. Pat McCrory signed orders in advance of the storm declaring an emergency, freeing state resources to react. The governor urged residents to prepare for power outages by plugging in cellphones and finding batteries for radios and flashlights.

McCrory also urged people to get home and stay off slick roads.

"Stay smart. Don't put your stupid hat on at this point in time. Protect yourself. Protect your family. Protect your neighbors," McCrory said.

In an indication of the gravity of the situation, Wednesday night's rivalry game between Duke and North Carolina was canceled after the Blue Devils' bus wasn't able to make it to the 11-mile drive from Durham to Chapel Hill.

Duke Energy spokeswoman Meghan Musgrave says the utility has about 3,400 field workers on the ground in North Carolina and South Carolina, including 500 from out of state. Those workers are in Greensboro and Florence until Duke determines where they're needed.

Workers from Florida are staying in South Carolina, while people from the Midwest will help in North Carolina. Duke has about 715,000 customers in South Carolina and about 3.2 million in North Carolina.

Dain Anderson was among those preparing for the possibility of days without electricity. He pushed a cart out of a Lowe's home improvement store in Durham with batteries, a big flashlight, a bag of sand and a snow shovel.

Anderson is no stranger to snow, having moved to the Triangle from Denver, Colo., years ago. But he remembers well the big ice storm in 2002 and a cold week living in the dark.

"It's pathetic, really," he joked, after being asked what he thought of how a few inches of snow could paralyze the South. "But I'm not taking any chances this time. I'm getting ready."