Rhonda Lennon started getting complaints late Tuesday morning.
Lennon, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member, represents District 1 in northern Mecklenburg. As soon as CMS announced that schools would close two hours early – as a winter storm approached from the south Tuesday – Lennon said her inbox began filling with emails from upset parents.
That was before news surfaced of stranded students and icy clogged roads surfaced from cities to the south.
“They were complaining about it interrupting their work day, and about the inconvenience,” she said. “But when the news reports about Alabama and Atlanta started coming out, they decided not to email me anymore.”
Charlotte’s shutdown was orderly, avoiding mistakes made elsewhere. CMS closed Wednesday and Thursday.
The winter storm that brought snow, ice and frigid temperatures left many Southern cities virtually paralyzed overnight Tuesday, forcing hundreds of students to sleep in schools or on buses and stranding drivers in gridlock along frozen roads.
In Alabama, thousands of students spent the night in the town of Hoover, and hundreds in nearby Birmingham. Hundreds more were stranded in Atlanta, where officials released students and government workers as the city’s businesses were closing – with school buses and commuters hitting the roads simultaneously.
By then, snow was falling earlier than expected, officials said, as traffic along interstates came to a halt.
When former Charlottean Mark Hewett, who now lives outside Chicago, began a lunch meeting about 11:50 a.m. Tuesday in Norcross, east of Atlanta, roads were clear.
By the time the meeting ended at 1 p.m., he found roads jammed and a sheet of ice.
“In that little time, the roads went from OK to impassable,” Hewett said. “Everybody shut down and hit the road at once. By that time, it was snowing and they couldn’t get trucks to salt and scrape. They were caught off guard and weren’t prepared.”
In Charlotte, officials began monitoring the storm’s track on Monday and the impact it was having on Deep South cities. They reacted long before the first flake fell.
Guy Chamberlain, assistant CMS superintendent for operations, went online for weather reports as soon as he awoke Tuesday at 5 a.m. By 8:30 a.m., he and other CMS officials were meeting to close schools, telling bus drivers not to go too far after delivering students.
“Having seen what was going on in Atlanta, it was a no-brainer to make the decision to go ahead and close schools,” Chamberlain said.
That decision by Superintendent Heath Morrison and his staff came about 9:45 a.m. – hours before the storm arrived in most of Mecklenburg.
Morrison made the announcement at 10:30 a.m. that schools would close two hours before their normal adjournment.
By 4:15 p.m., as the first flakes began to fall, Chamberlain got the “all-clear message” that all buses had delivered students home.
Though inconvenient for parents, it was the right decision, Lennon said. If schools had remained in session, many buses and high school students would have been on roads covered with snow.
“Safety always beats convenience to me,” she said. “You can’t make everybody happy, but what we did yesterday was to make everybody safe.”
Meanwhile, street crews got a jump on de-icing roads.
Hours before the storm arrived, they were spreading brine on roads and bridges to melt snow or ice as soon as it falls. It is kin to spraying a frying pan with oil to keep food from sticking to the bottom. Once snow fell, they began to lay down salt, said Saleem Khattak, the city’s street superintendent.
Khattak said his department was focused on what was happening in Charlotte with street, bridge and air temperatures.
But he did monitor the problems in Atlanta. He said he was glad workers didn’t wait until the storm arrived to de-ice streets.
“Anti-icing is the best tool you have in your arsenal,” he said. Judging from what happened further south, “we absolutely feel fortunate that we used it when we did.”
County and city officials met with other officials and decided not to close buildings early Tuesday. They were concerned the release of government workers with uptown businesses would create a traffic snarl, county spokesman Danny Diehl said.
“Nothing was mentioned about Atlanta’s problems,” Diehl said. “(City Manager) Ron Carlee said, ‘If you start letting out government folks early with all the businesses, you’ll create a real traffic problem.’
“We just didn’t want everybody leaving between 1 and 3 (p.m.) and the next thing you know you’ve created a rush hour and kids are sleeping on school buses.” The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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