Winter wonderland creates slick conditions
Posted December 25, 2010 3:28 p.m. EST
Updated December 26, 2010 8:37 p.m. EST
Raleigh, N.C. — A snowstorm that provided the Triangle with its first white Christmas in decades pounded parts of central North Carolina with up to a foot of snow early Sunday.
Snowfall amounts varied greatly across the region, but were heaviest along the Interstate 95 corridor and to the north of the Triangle.
Raleigh-Durham International Airport, the area's official weather recording station, saw 6.5 inches of snow by Sunday afternoon. The greatest accumulation recorded in Wake County was southeast of Knightdale, where 10 inches piled up.
"It's still snowing in Goldsboro, and another little bit is blowing into our area," WRAL meteorologist Kim Deaner said at about 3:30 p.m.
The beauty of the white Christmas was countered by slick conditions on roads across the state. The snow fell so quickly early Sunday that the state Department of Transportation could not keep roads clear.
"The roads aren't in good shape," Steve Halsey, an engineer with the state Department of Transportation who oversees Wake County, said. "We've been out on the major roads, doing the best we can to try to get he snow pushed off and get some salt and things put down.
Halsey said crews wouldn't be able to clear main roads completely until the snow stops later Sunday.
The state Highway Patrol responded to more than 1,300 calls statewide between midnight and 3 p.m., mostly collisions on highways, patrol spokesman Sgt. Jeff Gordon said.
The City of Raleigh had crews working 12-hour shifts spreading salt and plowing major routes. A spokesman there said they expected to have bus routes and multi-lane corridors clear by Tuesday morning.
Only one weather-related fatality was reported on North Carolina roads.
A woman died at about 3 a.m. in Mecklenburg County when she lost control of her car on a slick road and hit a tree, Gordon said. Authorities said alcohol also played a role in the wreck.
A jackknifed tractor-trailer shut down northbound Interstate 95 in Nash County shortly before 11 a.m., but the wreck was cleared and the highway reopened by noon.
Gordon urged drivers to stay off the roads to allow highway crews to clear them as much as possible.
"The big issue is late (Sunday) going into (Monday) and even Tuesday," he said. "Although the snow may cease falling, what we're going to find then is temperatures are going to fall, and anything we have on the roadways – and we have an ample amount – is going to cause some problems."
Patches of black ice were expected to develop overnight Sunday and make travel slick for Monday morning.
“We know many people are traveling for the holidays and we want everyone to be extremely cautious,” said Doug Hoell, state emergency management director. “Anyone who is thinking of driving during the next few days, should pay careful attention to the weather and traffic forecasts before heading out.”
Crews sprayed brine on major roads several days ago in advance of the storm, which Halsey said has helped to keep slick spots to a minimum.
"The brine did a good job," he said. "It helps us get a head start on it, so once the snow did start to build up a little bit, it was slushy and easy to get off."
About 50 or 60 trucks were clearing roads in Wake County and spreading salt and and sand on Sunday, but Halsey said snow came down so fast that it was accumulating on roads again shortly after plows had cleared them.
Snowfall greater than expected
Meteorologists initially forecast 3 to 6 inches of snow for the Triangle, but they upped their forecast Sunday morning to 4 to 7 inches because snow was falling so quickly over a wide swath. The northern coastal plain and the I-95 corridor were still expected to see 5 to 10 inches of snow.
Bands of snow remained in Johnston County and down toward Goldsboro and Sampson County for much of Sunday morning, Gardner said.
"Johnston County is really getting a wallop," she said.
While most storm systems move west to east, Gardner said, the low pressure system moving up along the coast would continue to throw moisture back across the the central part of the state for much of the day.
"Where are the roads OK? They're not OK anywhere," she said. "No matter where you're trying to go, there is heavy snow."
Interstate 40 had reports of 6 inches of snow from Greensboro in the west to Duplin County in the east by 9 a.m. Sunday. Interstate 95 had 4 inches reported in Fayetteville and 8 inches in Rocky Mount and Roanoke Rapids. Interstate 85 had 6 inches in Granville and Vance counties.
The heavy snow on tree limbs downed power lines and created outages across the region.
Progress Energy reported more than 32,000 customers without power early Sunday, with the hardest-hit areas in the southeastern part of the state. Duke Energy had about 7,000 customers in Forsyth County without power.
"We have many, many customers who are out, and they're in little clumps scattered all over our territories," Progress Energy spokeswoman Kristie Plaga said. "Our crews are out on the road – traveling safely – and getting to them as quickly as they can and trying to restore power."
Holiday travel, shopping troublesome
A winter storm warning covers North Carolina from the mountains to coast through midnight Sunday, and the storm system was causing travel troubles along the East Coast as it moved to the north.
Airlines grounded hundreds of flights along the Northeast corridor in anticipation of the storm, affecting major airports including New York's JFK and Newark. Airlines said more cancellations were likely as the storm progressed.
In Washington, D.C., transportation officials pre-treated roads and readied 200 salt trucks, plows and other pieces of equipment to fight the 6 inches or more expected to fall in the Mid-Atlantic region.
The Northeast was expected to get the brunt of the storm. Forecasters issued a blizzard warning for New York City for Sunday and Monday, with a forecast of 11 to 16 inches of snow and strong winds that will reduce visibility to near zero at times.
A blizzard warning was also in effect for Rhode Island and most of eastern Massachusetts including Boston, with forecasters predicting 15 to 20 inches of snow from noon Sunday to 6 p.m. A blizzard warning is issued when snow is accompanied by sustained winds or gusts over 35 mph.
Fierce winds along the North Carolina coast prompted the DOT to suspend ferry operations on the Currituck, Pamlico River, Swan Quarter and Cedar Island routes.
In the Triangle, the snow forced malls gearing up for post-Christmas sales to scale back.
Crabtree Valley Mall opened an hour later than planned and was scheduled to close three hours early, while Triangle Town Center and Cary Towne Center were closing two hours early.
Susan Moran, a spokeswoman for the Town of Cary, urged shoppers to give crews time to clear local roads before venturing out. About 200 people were working on Cary roads, she said.
"It's going to keep snowing for a while," Moran said. "That means we don't just run a plow down the street one time. We have to keep going over it and over it."
A team of pickup truck plows were working on clearing roads in Cary subdivisions Sunday morning, she said.
A white Christmas
Many areas of the Triangle experienced their first white Christmas in more than 60 years when light snow began to fall in Raleigh and Cary just before 8 p.m. Saturday.
Around that time, viewers reported seeing fast-falling flakes in Orange County, in Durham along U.S. Highway 15/501, in north Raleigh and in Wake Forest.
The official snowfall at RDU on Saturday was 0.4 inch, which equaled the amount that fell on the Triangle on Christmas Day 1947, WRAL Meteorologist Mike Moss said.
The largest snowfall ever recorded in December at RDU was 9.1 inches in 1958, he said, so Sunday's storm might break that record when the storm ends and the total at the airport is determined Sunday night.
The winter weather moved in from the west, where it dumped on the North Carolina mountains. Asheville had five inches on the ground by mid-day Saturday and could see up to a foot of snow by Sunday night, the National Weather Service said.
Chill to remain after snow ends
Snow began to taper off around the Triangle around noon Sunday.
"Once the low starts to get on north of us by midday into the afternoon, the heavier snows are likely to pull off to the north and east," Moss said. "We'll have some lingering flurries and light snow without much accumulation."
After the snow moves out, the winds move in, with gusts of up to 20 mph. It will stay bitterly cold through Monday, with a wind-chill factor in the teens. The freezing temperatures mean the threat of black ice will linger into Monday and Tuesday mornings.