The worst winter storm in a decade bashed the Carolinas with heavy snow, sleet and destructive freezing rain Wednesday, bringing traffic across the Charlotte area to a near-standstill and closing businesses and schools into Thursday.
Road conditions are expected to remain treacherous Thursday because of freezing rain and ice that started late Wednesday. The precipitation could cause power outages and make it more difficult for plows to clear roads.
By Wednesday evening, the storm had already dumped up to 6 inches of snow in various locations around Charlotte. Snow brought Independence Boulevard to a midafternoon standstill.
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Several more inches of snow and other precipitation were expected overnight.
It’s not over: A winter storm warning remains in effect until Thursday evening. Forecasters expect a mixture of snow and sleet.
The city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County declared a state of emergency late Wednesday afternoon, after declarations by the governors of North and South Carolina. About 100 National Guard troops were sent to Charlotte for possible support of local authorities.
“This will be a tough 48 hours,” North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said in a Wednesday news conference.
South and southeast of Charlotte, fears of a crippling ice storm materialized, with more than 230,000 power outages reported by late afternoon across South Carolina. An additional 20,000 customers in North Carolina were without power at points on Wednesday.
The worst traffic problems were on Independence Boulevard. Police say a tractor-trailer jackknifed midafternoon near the top of a hill near Hawthorne Lane on the outbound side.
Vehicles behind the truck stopped, then were unable to climb the incline on a snow-packed road. Authorities stopped all cars from getting onto the freeway for a stretch of about a mile.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police responded to at least 150 wrecks between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Wednesday.
Charlotte residents offered their homes through Facebook posts to stranded motorists, a situation similar to that in Atlanta several weeks ago.
The storm caused problems across the region. Near UNC Charlotte, a building collapsed under the weight of heavy snow Wednesday afternoon, and it took 26 firefighters to stabilize it.
In Monroe, dozens of motorists got stranded on part of northbound U.S. 601 because their cars couldn’t climb the hill. And in Mooresville, officials closed a portion of Timber Road.
“Cars are sliding on hills,” said town spokeswoman Kim Sellers.
Snow moved into the immediate Charlotte area from the south between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. By mid-afternoon, snow was falling as far north as the Interstate 40 corridor. Sleet began mixing with the snow in Lancaster and York counties early Wednesday afternoon and in the Charlotte area a short time later.
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.
Wednesday’s snow caused headaches for motorists across the region, but the bigger fear among many officials was the freezing rain. Experts say a quarter-inch can cause widespread power outages.
Duke Energy said it has 3,400 workers, including 500 from the Midwest and Florida, ready to restore power in the Carolinas.
“In areas where we have freezing rain and heavy, wet snow, you should expect outages,” said Jeff Corbett, Duke senior vice president.
More than half of Charlotte Douglas International Airport’s daily flights were canceled Wednesday, and airline officials warned that disruptions would continue Thursday. Amtrak halted train service Wednesday afternoon between Charlotte and Raleigh.
Many uptown Charlotte hotels were sold out by early Wednesday afternoon.
“A lot of people are extending their stays because their flights got canceled,” said Will Potts, a front desk agent at the Hilton Garden Inn.
A warming station that was opened Tuesday afternoon at 618 N. College St. in uptown will remain open until at least noon Thursday, said Jennifer Franklin of the American Red Cross.
In Gaston County, Salvation Army Capt. Mark Hunter said the overflow shelter there had a capacity of 45. Angela Dreher, executive of As One Ministries in Gastonia, said the nonprofit day shelter would keep its doors open for about 24 people overnight.
“We loaded everybody with coats, toboggans and gloves,” Dreher said. “But a lot just had tennis shoes.”
It wasn’t a crisis for everyone. In Cramerton, Sammy and Helen Oxendine, both in their 60s, took a stroll around their neighborhood during the heavy snow.
“We love snow,” said Sammy Oxendine, 69, retired pastor of Cramerton’s Life Church.
The couple talked about a 2005 trip they made with their children to Sugar Mountain for snow tubing.
“We’d go tubing with them today if we could get to them,” Oxendine said.
Observer staff writers Joe DePriest, Eric Frazier, Adam Bell, Pam Kelley, Joe Marusak, Doug Miller, Lindsay Ruebens and Roland Wilkerson contributed.