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First Winter Weather of Season Shuffles Into N.C.

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RALEIGH (AP) — Just in time for the Christmas trip to grandmother's house, the first winter storm of the season shuffled into North Carolina on Wednesday.

Freezing rain began falling across the Piedmont and the western foothills on Wednesday, and it was expected in the mountain valleys, but accumulations will be light, weather forecasters said. East of Interstate 95, rain was predicted.

``We're not foretelling complete, utter destruction,'' forecaster Gail Hartfield of the National Weather Service office in Raleigh said Wednesday. ``It's not a major winter event. It's just the first of the season and on the holiday week, so we're being extra cautious.''

The weather service posted a winter storm warning for the central and southern mountains and southern Piedmont, and a winter weather advisory for the northwest mountains and parts of the northern foothills.

But a white Christmas isn't in the cards, probably not even in the mountains, because temperatures above the rain clouds and cold air band are too warm, weather forecasters said.

The sharp turn in the weather coincides with a busy travel weekend. AAA Carolinas predicts 1.6 million motorists will hit the roads in North Carolina and South Carolina, taking advantage of the three-day holiday weekend and gasoline prices as low as 80 cents a gallon.

``It's going to be a hugely traveled Christmas because Christmas fall on a Friday this year,'' said AAA spokeswoman Kristy Tolley.

The weather system lumbered into the state in the form of a slow-motion one-two punch.

First, the cold weather arrived from the west, brought by a high pressure system that afflicted the central plains with subzero temperatures earlier this week.

Gulf moisture began filtering into the state from the southwest early Wednesday. The cold air and moisture are prime ingredients for freezing rain and sleet, the weather service said.

``It will be increasing overnight tonight and into Thursday,'' then lingering through Christmas Day, said Hartfield.

Daytime highs in the 30s were forecast for the Piedmont and western North Carolina through Thursday, and in the 40s for coastal areas. Warmer temperatures were predicted Christmas Day - mainly in the 40s and 50s.

Duke Energy Corp. reported no power outages in its electric service area due to icy conditions Wednesday, said Joe Maher, a company spokesman in Charlotte.

Besides possibly having to contend with slippery roads, travelers also may face road construction delays in some areas - Interstate 85 in Guilford County, U.S. 64 in Chatham County and N.C. 24/27 in Cabarrus and Mecklenburg counties.

The state Highway Patrol planned to be out in full force, establishing checkpoints in some areas to target motorists who drink and drive.

``That person gets in over his head very quickly,'' warned Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Jeff Winstead, adding that in addition to checkpoints, troopers will employ other ``high visibility tactics'' as well.

With icy roads possible, some may think body shop owners are rubbing their hands with anticipation. Not so, says Hank Vanpala, who operates Auto Shape body shop in Raleigh.

He said wrecks on icy roads usually leave cars either totaled or with damage so minor that drivers postpone repairs.

``It's not what everybody thinks,'' Vanpala said. ``... I hate ice storms. Body shops make their money with rain.''

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