Forecasters: Nearly 1 foot coming; CMS, other area schools closed Wednesday

Carolinas residents went into hunker-down mode Wednesday morning, preparing for the arrival of a winter storm that could be the worst in a decade.

Snow is forecast to reach the immediate Charlotte area between 7 and 9 a.m., and by the time it ends Thursday morning, 6 inches or more is expected to be on the ground. Forecasters warn that heavy sleet also is possible, and accumulations of ice are predicted for areas south and southeast of Charlotte.

At 6 a.m., the snow and sleet was pushing northeast through South Carolina. Precipitation was falling within 35 miles of Charlotte.

The predictions caused Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and other districts to close Wednesday after dismissing early Tuesday, as road crews made final preparations for the storm.

Besides the snow, meteorologists and emergency managers warned late Tuesday that they had not ruled out the threat of potentially crippling freezing rain, which could cause power outages.

Forecasters say the storm will bring about 10 inches of snow to Charlotte and nearly a foot to northern Mecklenburg County and Gastonia. Less snow is expected southeast of Charlotte, but those residents will be trading snow for damaging ice.

“Current predictions are that travel will be treacherous,” said City Manager Ron Carlee at a news conference after a first round of minor snow. “We have (the) possibility of power outages and perhaps even a crippling ice storm. We want to encourage people to stay off the roads if they do not have to be out.”

Carlee also asked businesses to consider closing for the day.

Central Piedmont Community College and UNC Charlotte joined most school systems in the region in announcing Tuesday that they would close Wednesday.

Charlotte and Mecklenburg County will open two hours late Wednesday, but could re-evaluate if the weather requires, Carlee said. Garbage and recycling collection was suspended.

City buses and light rail are running on a normal schedule, but officials say riders should expect delays and detours. City leaders will assess the latest forecast during a 5 a.m. conference call.

The American Red Cross opened a warming center late Tuesday afternoon at 618 N. College St. and said it would remain open until at least noon Wednesday.

National Weather Service meteorologist John Tomko said the snow will begin in Charlotte around 8 or 9 a.m. The heaviest precipitation is expected around midday Wednesday, and the storm is expected to continue into early Thursday, he said.

Meteorologists said computer models late Tuesday pointed toward more snow and less sleet and freezing rain for Charlotte.

But southeastern Mecklenburg County and parts of Union County could get up to one-fifth of an inch of ice. A quarter-inch can cause widespread power outages, experts say.

It is expected to be worse in South Carolina, with up to an inch of ice possible in the Columbia area. That could bring power outages for days.

Meteorologists said the damaging ice buildups could reach as far inland as southeastern Union County and Lancaster County, S.C.

The snowfall comes as the region approaches the decade anniversary of a storm that began Feb. 26, 2004, and brought 20 inches of snow to southern Mecklenburg County. That storm trapped ambulances on icy drifts and stranded drivers on highways.

In preparation for Wednesday’s storm, N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory and S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley declared states of emergency, allowing authorities to mobilize any resources needed to battle the storm. The order includes a waiver on weight restrictions and work hours for truck drivers who deliver supplies, restore utilities or clear debris.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer