Snow, sleet and freezing rain for North Carolina

Feb. 12, 2014 @ 09:03 PM

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.

Keith was able to drive only a few miles before she was forced to abandon her car and start walking, a blanket 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."

As the winter storm slammed into North Carolina, commutes that 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.

At least two people died in accidents authorities described as weather-related.

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 snarled bo those trying to get home.

Traffic cameras in Charlotte and Raleigh showed traffic backed up for miles, recalling 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, leaving massive city-wide gridlock, children stranded at schools and power outages lasting more than a week.

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

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

Up to 11 inches was possible from the mountains through the Piedmont. As much as 6 inches of snow was expected around Raleigh. Father east, coastal counties were coated in up to an inch of ice.

The sudden seriousness of the storm caught even Yankee transplant Caitlin Palmieri off guard. A worker at a bead store in downtown Raleigh, she said snow was already sticking to the roads by the time a co-worker called to tell her to hasten home.

"I pulled out of the parking lot, and I could feel my wheels spinning," said Palmieri, 26, on 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 and walk back to work.

State Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry said transportation crews, Highway Patrol troopers and even National Guard Humvees were answering calls from stranded motorists, but there was no way to estimate how many were stuck in vehicles.

Emergency shelters opened statewide. A suburban mall in Durham announced it would stay open for stranded motorists coming from nearby Interstate 40.

Officials in Raleigh said the capital city's fire and police were out trying to unclog snarled traffic, which appeared to be letting up at nightfall.

"If we find anyone that is stranded that needs water or food or whatever we can do for them" our crews will help, city spokeswoman Jayne Kirkpatrick said.

There were reports of two fatalities.

Breanna Lynn Tile, 23, died in Moore County on Tuesday when a car she was riding in struck a tree.

Another woman died Wednesday in a head-on collision in Chatham County. Her name wasn't immediately made public while kin were notified.

A state Highway Patrol trooper also was hospitalized after his parked cruiser was struck by another car.

Gov. Pat McCrory signed advance orders 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," McCrory said.

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 in South Carolina, while others 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 readied 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 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."