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Winds, mountain snow usher cold air into Carolinas

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/03/12/32/TZPhD.Em.138.png|320
    By Davie Hinshaw - dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com
    Charlotteans brace against a cold wind on Friday.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/02/22/21/JZpqP.Em.138.jpg|320
    Diedra Laird - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
    A pedestrian runs across Stonewall St. with an umbrella during Thursday's cool, rainy weather in the Charlotte area.

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Forecasters say the blast of cold air that roared into the Carolinas late Thursday will relax its grip on the region Saturday, but even worse conditions are possible next week.

The coldest air in 10 years is predicted Tuesday and Wednesday, and Charlotte could see readings near 10 degrees Wednesday morning.

The arctic outburst that arrived Thursday evening sent temperatures plummeting into the teens in many parts of the Piedmont on Friday morning, and afternoon highs recovered only to the mid-30s.

The wintry blast was produced by the same dip in the jet stream responsible for bitterly cold temperatures and heavy snow in the northern part of the United States. The snow hit a wide path from the Great Lakes to the East Coast, and forecasters say another storm could reach the area Saturday or Sunday.

After thousands of flights were canceled Thursday and Friday, another round of bad weather could affect an area stretching from St. Louis and Chicago to the East Coast on Sunday and Monday.

Milder conditions are expected Saturday in the Charlotte region, although morning lows are predicted to be in the mid teens. Afternoon temperatures are expected to recover into the low and middle 40s.

Mid-40s and scattered showers are forecast for Sunday, before the next cold blast arrives.

In North Carolina’s mountains, the cold air was accompanied by strong winds and several inches of snow.

Officials at Great Smoky Mountains National Park were forced to rescue three men from Gaffney, S.C., who became trapped by the bad weather. They had used cellphones to call for help Thursday night, shortly after starting a planned 10-day backpacking trip.

The three, ranging in age from 21 to 32, were found by rescuers at midday Friday and airlifted out by helicopter. Park spokesman Kent Cave said the men were suffering from frostbite and hypothermia in conditions that included below-zero wind chills and snow drifts of up to 2 feet.

Rangers said the men were not prepared for the type of weather that developed.

“Winter hiking in the Smokies can be very dangerous without taking the proper precautions,” said Chief Ranger Clay Jordan.

At 8 a.m. Friday in Charlotte, the combination of a 21-degree air temperature and 20 mph northwest wind produced a wind chill value of 8 degrees.

The temperature didn’t climb above 32 degrees until early afternoon.

While it was cold in Charlotte, it was even colder in the northwest part of the state.

At 8 a.m., it was -3 degrees at Mount Mitchell, where a 48 mph northwest wind was producing a wind chill of -35 degrees. West Jefferson in Ashe County had an air temperature of -1 degree and a wind chill of -24 degrees. West Jefferson’s temperature had climbed to only 2 degrees at 11 a.m.

Adding to the misery were scattered power outages in the mountains. Blue Ridge Electrric reported about 500 outages earlier Friday, mostly caused by wind damage to power lines and other equipment. Crews restored most power by mid-morning.

The N.C. Department of Transportation had crews working throughout the night, trying to keep mountain roads passable. Beech Mountain reported 5.4 inches and 3 inches fell in Boone. DOT spokeswoman Jordan-Ashley Baker said crews working in Alleghany, Ashe, Avery and Watauga counties had to use plows to clear the snow, because the cold temperatures made salt ineffective.

A repeat occurrence is likely early next week. Another arctic cold front is forecast to cross the area Monday.

“Probably the coldest day will be Tuesday,” said James Oh, of the National Weather Service office in Greer, S.C. “Right now, we’re predicting a low of 11 degrees in Charlotte, with an afternoon high of 29.”

Lyttle: 704-358-6107; Twitter: @slyttle
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