The first winter storm of the season left icy roads across the Charlotte region Friday, and forecasters said several more rounds of snow and sleet are expected before the precipitation comes to an end Saturday.
If there was a bright spot to the storm, which is expected to turn into a raging blizzard farther up the East Coast, it was that Charlotte appeared to escape the heavy freezing rain that meteorologists had feared.
Instead, the heaviest freezing rain fell Friday in a band from Fayetteville to Raleigh and to the west in the South Carolina Upstate.
Duke Energy, which had recruited more than 2,000 out-of-state utility workers for possible line repairs, reported late Friday afternoon that more than 104,000 customers were without power. That number jumped from 30,000 a few hours earlier.
The Raleigh area appeared to be hard-hit, with 16,800 outages in Wake County and 17,800 in neighboring Johnston County. Harnett County had 12,700 outages. In the S.C. Upstate, more than 11,800 Greenville County customers were without power.
Charlotte-area residents dealt with heavy sleet and, farther to the northwest, several inches of snow. The National Weather Service measured 2.7 inches of snow and sleet at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
The sleet created hazardous driving conditions on Charlotte-area roads. The N.C. Highway Patrol reported 127 wrecks on interstate highways in the Charlotte region and 266 on all state and U.S. highways in the area.
The Charlotte Checkers responded by telling the public not to attend their Friday evening game at Bojangles’ Coliseum, saying roads were too dangerous for fans. Instead, the Checkers played the Chicago Wolves in an empty arena.
The National Weather Service says the winter storm warning for Charlotte will extend until 7 p.m. Saturday. Sleet and some freezing rain are expected to continue in the region Friday afternoon and evening, but the precipitation is forecast to change to snow in the early-morning hours Saturday. The Weather Service’s computer guidance indicated a band of heavy snow could form early Saturday in the Piedmont and Foothills, perhaps bringing 2 or 3 inches to parts of the Charlotte area.
Clearing is forecast Saturday evening, and the weather is expected to be clear and cold Sunday for the Panthers-Cardinals NFC Championship Game in Charlotte.
Meteorologists earlier had warned than a half-inch of ice could accumulate in Charlotte – enough to cause major problems with downed tree limbs and power lines. Instead, most of what fell was sleet in the immediate Charlotte area.
Sleet does not create power outage problems but is a major headache for road crews. With temperatures hovering in the upper 20s all day, the sleet quickly froze on road surfaces.
Local and state officials urged area residents to remain on guard, despite the several hours of precipitation-free conditions that developed late Friday morning.
“The big message here is it continues to be a fluid situation,” Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee said. “We’re in a lull. As it’s been suggested, we’re in halftime. But the second half could be worse, and it could go into overtime.”
Gov. Pat McCrory said in a news conference in Raleigh, “Now is not the time to let down your guard.”
The precipitation began, as expected, shortly before midnight Thursday evening as rain. It changed to sleet a few hours later in Charlotte, coating the streets with a layer of congealed ice pellets.
To the north and northwest, the precipitation fell as snow. The National Weather Service said it received several reports of up to 10 inches of snow near Asheville, and there were widespread reports of 4-7 inches along the Interstate 40 corridor.
The N.C. Department of Transportation said it had more than 2,000 trucks operating on the state’s highways, spreading 29,780 tons of salt.
Col. William Grey, head of the N.C. Highway Patrol, said troopers helped 100 motorists get their stranded vehicles off roads Friday morning. The Highway Patrol responded to 571 collisions through Friday morning and 800 calls for service.
Charlotte Department of Transportation director Danny Pleasant said 72 crew members, divvied among 36 trucks, were working 12-hour shifts to cover area roads with salt and brine.
The N.C. Highway Patrol said a child was killed Friday afternoon in a wreck on northbound I-77 near Troutman in Iredell County. The child was a passenger in a pickup truck that hit the rear of a wrecker, according to WBTV, the Observer’s news partner.
Hickory police were investigating a fatal crash that might have been weather-related. Police said one person was killed when a car went off a roadway in the early-morning hours. Snow was falling at the time.
“We strongly encourage everyone not to travel unless absolutely necessary,” Grey said.
Burke County EMS said crews were called Friday afternoon to rescue an injured hiker near Hawksbill Mountain, not far from the Linville Gorge.
Duke Energy had called in 2,800 crew members from Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Michigan, Indiana, Oklahoma and Texas to help manage outages in the Carolinas, according to district manager Tim Gause. “The full impact of the storm system is unknown at this time, but I want you to be prepared,” he said.
American Airlines canceled all flights in and out of Charlotte Douglas International Airport on Friday. The airline operates more than 90 percent of the daily flights in Charlotte, so air travel to and from the city was largely stopped until Saturday morning, when American plans to resume air service from the city.
Flights were also canceled Friday for Delta, United, Southwest, Lufthansa, Air Canada, ViaAir and JetBlue.
Schools across the region canceled classes, and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools announced that SAT testing scheduled for Saturday would not take place. The NASCAR Hall of Fame’s induction dinner and ceremony scheduled for Friday evening was postponed until 1 p.m. Saturday, said executive director Winston Kelley.
Charlotte area postal officials suspended mail collection from the family blue collection boxes Friday.
Mail delivery was suspended Friday for customers in ZIP codes beginning with 280, 281, 282, 287, 288 and 297. Retail services also were suspended.Adam Bell, Cliff Harrington, Maria David, Karen Garloch, Kathleen Purvis, Tracy Yochum, Doug Miller and The Associated Press contributed.