Wintry weather snarls traffic in Triangle

Posted January 25, 2013 6:08 a.m. EST
Updated January 26, 2013 6:14 a.m. EST

— A winter storm that swept across North Carolina on Friday brought less than an inch of snow, sleet and freezing rain, but that was enough to cause a mess on the roadways as thousands of drivers headed home early to avoid the worst of the weather.

With state and local crews spreading salt and sand along roadways more than 24 hours in advance of the storm, the scene was far from a repeat of snowfall eight years ago that caused unprecedented gridlock during the evening commute.

Still, the day was not without its share of traffic snarls.

A school bus carrying 21 elementary students slid off snow-slicked Fox Road in Wake County and into a tree Friday afternoon, sending two children to the hospital with minor injuries. Later in the day, wrecks shut down parts of interstates 95 and 40.

From Greensboro to Fayetteville, Rocky Mount to Southern Pines, drivers crawled, highways temporarily closed, cars flipped and dozens of crashes were reported, but there were no fatalities.

The North Carolina State Highway Patrol stayed busy throughout the day, answering more than 400 calls from motorists in distress. First Sgt. Jeff Gordon said nearly 200 accidents were reported in Wake County by 8 p.m.

Durham police said they responded to about 80 accidents by 5 p.m.

“We’re seeing a lot of trouble on the secondary roads,” Durham County Sheriff Deputy Paul Sherwin said. “The good news is most of the people went home earlier.”

At Raleigh-Durham International Airport, about 20 flights were canceled and more were delayed.

A first band of precipitation brought light snow to the area at lunchtime before an hour-long break in the storm. A second batch of freezing rain and sleet rolled across the state in the late afternoon and kept conditions dicey until about 7 p.m., when the system blew closer to the coast. 

Temperatures stubbornly clung to the mid-20s through the day, preventing accumulated snow from melting and ensuring roads would stay icy overnight.

The National Weather Service extended its winter weather advisory, which was set to expire at midnight, until 11 a.m. Saturday for most areas.

"The problem is the temperatures are still way below freezing in most areas," WRAL Chief Meteorologist Greg Fishel said. "So we're not going to see this ice go anywhere fast."

Throughout the day, officials exhorted residents to go home and stay home. And many listened, taking to the roads early.

Schools, colleges and universities across the region began dismissal as early as 10 a.m. to get buses off the roads before the evening rush hour. 

Wake County schools revised its initial early closing plan, changing it from three to four hours because of the impending weather. Chatham County schools also changed its plans and dismissed at 10:30 a.m. 

"The first batch rolled in a little earlier than we were thinking," WRAL meteorologist Elizabeth Gardner said.

Many businesses and shopping centers – including Triangle Town Center, Crabtree Valley Mall and the Streets at Southpoint – also announced early closings and sent employees home.

Even the governor canceled his evening plans. "We do want to encourage people to be very, very careful on what are anticipated to be very slick roads throughout North Carolina," said Gov. Pat McCrory, who canceled his Friday evening schedule. "We don't want to see anyone take any risks."

The brine spread by N.C. Department of Transportation trucks in preparation for the storm on Thursday mostly washed away in the Friday afternoon rain, but crews rolled out again with another load of sand and salt to treat trouble spots.

In Cary alone, 2,400 tons of brine and 900 tons of salt were at the ready to cover more than 1,200 miles of roadway.

“Right now, we are letting the brine do its job,” said Steve Brown, Cary director of public works and utilities.

Duke Energy spokesman Lou Middleton said no widespread power outages were reported because the ice accumulation was not enough to weigh down tree branches or power lines. Yet the company kept personnel on standby, he said.

Conditions were expected to be a challenge until Saturday afternoon, when temperatures will warm into the mid-40s and give the icy glaze a chance to melt.

Until then, residents were being encouraged to stay put.

"It's not going to be a very fun night to be out walking or driving," Fishel said. "If you don't have to do either, stay home until tomorrow."