Columns of cars converged on snow-whitened streets and highways on Wednesday afternoon, trapping many on the road during the worst storm of the season.
The traffic jams began soon after the snow began falling at midday, and some drivers were forced to abandon vehicles on highways and trouble spots by late afternoon. The Streets at Southpoint mall, which closed for business at 4 p.m., opened its doors to drivers stuck on I-40.
By 5 p.m., most public bus systems in the Triangle had taken their buses off the road. Only Chapel Hill Transit had a few buses running this evening.
In Raleigh, traffic was blocked at South Saunders Street on the way out of downtown, while major highways had slowed to a crawl for miles. Police units and emergency responders scrambled through the afternoon to reach stranded drivers and dozens of vehicle crashes, even while nightfall and the expected change of snow to ice threatened to make the situation worse. Major power outages hit the state’s coast through the afternoon and threatened to spread inland.
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Bob Hofstadter had been driving for 2 hours by 4 p.m., trying to get from his work in Durham to his home north of Raleigh. He’d slogged down Interstate 40, came up a blanketed South Saunders Street, and ran into a clog of cars on the hill coming into Raleigh.
“I thought I was going to go through town, but now I‘m not sure we’re going anywhere,” Hofstadter said, scraping ice from the windshield wipers of his Chevy Tahoe. Up ahead, several lanes of cars wound into the white haze that had settled over downtown.
In the southbound lanes, neon-jacketed men pushed cars one at a time up the hill, while other vehicles sat abandoned under deepening snow on off-ramps nearby.
There were so many accidents on the roads that police in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill said they would be responding to only the more serious ones. They urged motorists involved in minor accidents to exchange information and report the accidents later.
The National Weather Service called it a “potentially crippling” storm and predicted 2 to 4 inches of snow in the Triangle and sleet mixed with freezing rain that could add a half-inch of ice. The weather service said it could be the worst winter storm in central North Carolina since the ice storm of December 2002 that left many communities paralyzed for days.
As of 2:45 p.m. Wednesday, all remaining flights in and out of Raleigh-Durham International Airport had been canceled, as had most Thursday morning departures.
The storm is prompting a rash of closings and cancellations, not only schools but businesses and other events. Like Streets at Southpoint, Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh closed early Wednesday.
Schools will be closed Thursday. UNC-Chapel Hill classes were canceled Wednesday after 1 p.m. and all day Thursday. N.C. State University classes were canceled from noon Wednesday to noon Thursday, and N.C. Central University issued the same order from 1 p.m. Wednesday to 1 p.m. Thursday.
Duke Progress Energy was dealing with power outages that affected about 50,000 customers in the Wilmington area and tens of thousands more in other coastal counties, with only sporadic outages in the Triangle as of 5 p.m.
State agencies were on alert. McCrory signed an emergency declaration and urged residents to be ready for ice that officials expect to bring down power lines and make driving hazardous.
“Check your neighbors. Take care of each other,” McCrory said Tuesday. He urged North Carolinians to have backup heating sources, flashlights and battery-powered radios on hand.
“It’s going to be a tough 48 hours,” McCrory said.
Duke Energy brought additional repair crews from out of state to be ready to respond to power outages. Many crews will be staged in Greensboro and Florence, S.C., ready to go where they are needed most.
“We don’t know yet where that will be,” Duke Energy spokeswoman Tina Worley said Tuesday. “That line between freezing rain and sleet and snow just keeps moving up and down, and one degree, one way or another. Freezing rain is the worst thing for power lines.”
In for the long run
Nathan Spanjers left downtown Raleigh around 1:30 p.m., heading for his home in the Franklin County town of Bunn. After three hours of gridlock and multiple efforts to push stuck cars out of the way, he decided to make a pit stop at Overtime Sports Pub, on New Bern Avenue at the eastern edge of Raleigh.
To get even that far, he took to the shoulder of the road, passing a parking lot of stopped cars on multiple East Raleigh thoroughfares.
Spanjers said he planned to get some food and shoot a few rounds of pool before tackling the roads again with his four-wheel drive.
“We figure we’ll sit back and let a few of the dummies get out of the way,” he said. “You’ve got people out there with rear-wheel drive and stick shifts, just spinning around.”
The staff at Overtime said the road to Knightdale remained at a standstill around 4:30, and Spanjers was among a half-dozen or so drivers who decided to take a break at the bar.
Hector Jeyakaran, the general manager at the Embassy Suites in Brier Creek, said that by late afternoon he had nearly 20 people in the lobby hoping to check into a room.
“We’re doing our level best to accommodate about 20 people who are pretty much stranded,” he said.
Wednesday nights usually are busy at the hotel anyway because of business travel, but last night’s crowd had more than its share of stranded airline passengers and a few frustrated drivers, he said.
Patrick Anderson, the general manager of Streets of Southpoint Mall in Durham, said most of the shops there closed at 2 p.m., but he decided to open the center court to anyone stranded by the storm.
“It’s just us trying to do the right thing,” Anderson said. He noticed motorists pulling into the parking lot to get away from the gridlock on Interstate 40 and Fayetteville Street.
“I looked at the traffic and said, ‘Come on in,’” Anderson said.
Though stores are scheduled to reopen at noon, Anderson said they would take a wait-and-see attitude. Champps restaurant was open late in the afternoon, so the small group seeking shelter in the mall had access to food.
Price gouging law in effect
McCrory’s emergency declaration also triggered a price gouging law that protects consumers from excessive price increases during a disaster, emergency or market disruption.
“Many businesses work to help their communities when bad weather strikes, but if you spot anyone using this storm to make an unfair profit off consumers, let us know about it,” Attorney General Roy Cooper said in a news release.
At RDU, an open house planned Saturday for the newly renovated Terminal 1 was canceled and will not be rescheduled. The new part of the terminal, the home of Southwest Airlines, is expected to open for public use March 2.
Amtrak said some of its Silver Star, Silver Meteor, Palmetto, Carolinian and Piedmont trains through North Carolina would be canceled Wednesday.
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