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Road crews prepare for Round 2; state moves trucks from coast to Triangle

By Ron Gallagher and Andrew Kenney
rgallagher@newsobserver.com akenney@newsobserver.com

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RALEIGH EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is no longer being updated. Click here for the most recent version of this article.

The state Department of Transportation began shifting trucks and personnel from east to west Thursday, as the winter storm that is hanging over the state dumped rain on coastal counties and threatened more snow for the Triangle.

Power crews were working to restore service to more than 100,000 customers in the state, but conditions could get worse before they get better, Gov. Pat McCrory told a morning news conference at state emergency headquarters.

“Sometimes the most hazardous conditions are after the storm” as tree limbs weaken under the weight of snow and ice and fall then, said McCrory, a former Duke Energy executive.

“Mother Nature is still right here,” McCrory said as he praised the work of DOT, Highway Patrol and National Guard staff in checking all abandoned cars they found Wednesday and overnight to be sure no one was in them that needed help.

The National Weather Service said 1 to 3 inches of new snow was expected in the Triangle.

The state Division of Emergency Management reported about 101,000 customers had lost power across the state.

Duke Progress Energy reported about 17,000 customers without power in Wake County at 7:30 a.m. and a total of 70,000 in North Carolina.

Duke Energy had about 7,000 customers without power in North Carolina on Thursday morning, the Associated Press reported, and the company listed about 2,100 of those as being in Durham County.

Duke brought additional repair crews from out of state to be ready to respond to power outages. Many crews were staged in Greensboro and in Florence, S.C., ready to go where they were needed most.

The company said about 500 workers had been brought in from Duke facilities in the Midwest and Florida, and another 500 were expected to arrive Thursday.

All evening flights in and out of Raleigh-Durham International Airport were canceled until at least 11 a.m. Thursday, as were all flights Wednesday evening. All Jet Blue, Air Canada Jazz and United Airlines flights Thursday were canceled, RDU reported.

Travelers should check with their airline before heading to the airport over the next couple of days.

The weather service posted unofficial snow totals ranging from 3.6 inches to 8 inches around the Triangle, with the heavier amounts generally to the west and north.

Triangle Transit said bus scheduled in the region are curtailed, with service not scheduled to start until 9 a.m. at the earliest, and its intercity buses and Capital Area Transit in Raleigh running on a Sunday schedule once they do begin.

Police and tow trucks had a huge task to clear vehicles abandoned on the sides of roads and highways Wednesday. Forecasters had predicted the storm for days, prompting Wake County schools to close Wednesday, but the snow seemed to catch thousands off guard, trapping columns of cars on snow-whitened streets and highways.

“Vehicles are being left in place unless they are blocking the road” or hindering plows, McCrory said.

“We don’t mind you waiting for a while” until it’s safe to recover cars left on the roadsides, the governor added.

The weather service’s winter storm warning for the region extends until 6 p.m. Thursday.

There were so many accidents on the roads Wednesday that police in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill said they would be responding to only the more serious ones. Durham’s 911 center received about 600 calls in two hours and was tending to more than 100 wrecks as of 4 p.m. The three departments urged motorists involved in minor accidents to exchange information and report the accidents later.

Most of the accidents were minor. WakeMed’s Raleigh campus, the largest hospital in the county, had seen 24 injured people as of 4 p.m., mostly from vehicle crashes and falls.

Cancellations, closings

The storm prompted a rash of closings and cancellations. Schools will be closed Thursday, and many government office and businesses will remain shuttered, too. UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. Central University, N.C. State University and Wake Tech Community College called off Thursday’s classes.

Two Wake County churches and Knightdale High School opened their doors to shelter people trapped by the storm. Only a few people had stopped by Apex United Methodist Church as of 8 p.m., but Lead Pastor Gray Southern said the church was ready for more.

In for the long run

Many will remember Wednesday’s storm for what it did to their drive home.

Bob Hofstadter had been driving for 2 hours by 4 p.m., trying to get from his work in Durham to his home north of Raleigh. He’d slogged down the highway, came up a blanketed South Saunders Street, and ran into a clog of cars on the hill coming into downtown Raleigh.

“I thought I was going to go through town, but now I‘m not sure we’re going anywhere,” Hofstadter said, scraping ice from the windshield wipers of his Chevy Tahoe. Up ahead, several lanes of cars wound into the white haze that had settled over downtown.

In the southbound lanes, neon-jacketed men pushed cars one at a time up the hill, while other vehicles sat abandoned under deepening snow on off-ramps nearby.

Nathan Spanjers left downtown Raleigh around 1:30 p.m., heading north to his home in Bunn in Franklin County. After three hours of gridlock and multiple efforts to push stuck cars out of the way, Spanjers decided to make a pit stop at Overtime Sports Pub on New Bern Avenue at the eastern edge of Raleigh.

To get even that far, he took to the shoulder of the road, passing a parking lot of stopped cars on several East Raleigh streets.

Spanjers said he planned to get some food and shoot a few rounds of pool before tackling the roads again with his four-wheel drive.

“We figure we’ll sit back and let a few of the dummies get out of the way,” he said. “You’ve got people out there with rear-wheel drive and stick shifts, just spinning around.”

The staff at Overtime said the road to Knightdale remained at a standstill around 4:30, and Spanjers was among a half-dozen or so drivers who decided to take a break at the bar.

Hector Jeyakaran, the general manager at the Embassy Suites in Brier Creek, said that by late afternoon the storm had forced people into his hotel looking for a room.

“We’re doing our level best to accommodate about 20 people who are pretty much stranded,” Jeyakaran said.

Wednesday nights usually are busy at the hotel anyway because of business travel, but Jeyakaran said he had more than the usual stranded airline passengers and a few frustrated drivers.

Patrick Anderson, the general manager of The Streets at Southpoint mall in Durham, said most of the shops there closed at 2 p.m., but he decided to open the center court to anyone stranded by the storm.

“It’s just us trying to do the right thing,” Anderson said. He noticed motorists pulling into the parking lot to get away from the gridlock on Interstate 40 and Fayetteville Street.“I looked at the traffic and said, ‘Come on in,’ ” Anderson said.

Though stores are scheduled to reopen at noon, Anderson said they would take a wait-and-see attitude. Champps restaurant was open late in the afternoon, so the small group seeking shelter in the mall had access to food.

Anti-price gouging law in effect

The weather service said it could be the worst winter storm in central North Carolina since the ice storm of December 2002 that left many communities paralyzed for days.

Before the snow began falling, Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency that he said would enable him to mobilize the necessary resources to respond to the storm. It included a 30-day waiver on weights and service hours for truck drivers who might be needed to provide supplies, restore utility services and clear debris.

The declaration also triggered a price gouging law that protects consumers from excessive price increases during a disaster, emergency or market disruption.

“Many businesses work to help their communities when bad weather strikes, but if you spot anyone using this storm to make an unfair profit off consumers, let us know about it,” Attorney General Roy Cooper said in a news release.

McCrory urged residents to prepare for a long night and to think of others.

“It’s going to be a tough 48 hours,” he said.

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or newsobserver.com/roadworrierblog Twitter: @Road_ Worrier
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