Weather tangles traffic in Durham, Chapel Hill

Durham declares state of emergency
Feb. 12, 2014 @ 10:17 PM

The winter storm that started dropping snow on Durham around midday Wednesday caused gridlock around the city, trapping commuters as well as work crews in traffic for hours and leading others to leave their cars and head home on foot.

The storm had dumped as much as 6 inches in Durham County just five miles south of the city as of early Wednesday evening, 4 inches in North Durham and around 4 in northern portions of the county near Bahama, according to reports from the National Weather Service in Raleigh.

Schools released early. People started driving home early from work, clogging major roads and resulting in gridlock as conditions worsened. A 30-minute commute turned into a two-hour winter adventure for many drivers.

“We’re staying busy,” said Deputy Paul Sherwin, spokesman for the Durham County Sheriff’s Office. “I think everyone in the area left work at once, which caused major problems.”

The City of Durham on Wednesday evening declared a state of emergency and urged residents to stay off the highways and roads to allow clearing operations to proceed without adding to the chaos.

About 6 p.m., just three hours before tip-off, the Duke-UNC basketball game was cancelled, even as some fans were struggling to get to the Dean Smith Center.

The  rapid deterioration in road conditions caught many residents off-guard.

“It came on pretty suddenly and no one expected that, (despite) all the warnings,” said Matt Rutledge of Durham, who said he left work around 1 p.m. and then sat in traffic for an hour on Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway before deciding to make the approximately four-mile trek home on foot. He decided to walk because the parkway was an “absolute parking lot,” he said.  He said was able to get a ride from another driver for about a mile and a half of the total distance.

In the line of stalled cars on Garrett Road was Suzanne Fox of Durham and her young son. Fox said she was at Whole Foods when it started to snow. She was hoping to get hope despite the gridlock, but said her car was getting stuck because other vehicles were driving so slowly.

Four different people got out of their cars to help push her car.

“There are all these good Samaritans out today,” she said. “I’m just so grateful to live down here; the people are kind.”

The timing of the snowfall was unfortunate, said Ryan Ellis, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Raleigh, as commuters went into work when there was no snowfall, and got stuck in traffic after it started. But although the snowfall rates were “a little fast” In the beginning, the accumulation totals and timing were in line with forecasts.

“We’ve been talking about this for days, and we’ve used words in our forecast like ‘crippling storm’ so I don’t know how else to get it out to people,” Ellis said. “I think these things are just going to happen. I don’t know what the answer is to get people just to stay home. It’s where physical science bleeds into social science.”

The city pre-treated primary and secondary roadways in Durham, but the department’s plows got stuck in the gridlock with the commuters and weren’t able to get out and clear the primary roads, said Marvin Williams, director of Durham’s Department of Public Works.

“We didn’t expect to have that many cars on the road at one time, so many of our plows ended up getting stuck in the traffic,” Williams said. “We actually had to take our plows off the primaries, and then move them over to the secondary roadways to get some of those cleared while traffic died down on the primary roads.”

But by about 7 p.m., he said the traffic had died down and they could get out onto the roads. He said the department planned to focus on primary roads.

In Orange County, troopers reported many calls for service after the snow started coming down, but no accidents with serious injuries.

Calls about car problems in Durham and Chapel Hill became so numerous that police departments made special announcements urging motorists only to call 911 for accidents with injuries and to delay reporting damage-only accidents until the severe weather had passed.

Kammie Michael, spokeswoman for the Durham Police department, said Durham 911 dispatchers handled 330 calls between 2 and 3 p.m. and 297 calls between 3 and 4 p.m.

By 4 p.m., 121 traffic accidents were handled in Durham, according to James Soukup, director of the Durham Emergency Communications Center. Some of the worst problems were on I-85, I-40 and the Durham Freeway, Michael said.

“We encourage people to stay off the roads tonight and (Thursday),” Michael said. “The road conditions are very dangerous right now.”

Later in the afternoon, the Streets at Southpoint mall closed for retail shopping but remained open as a shelter for motorists stranded by the weather.

In addition to causing traffic back-ups and other problems, the storm led to cancellations at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Nearly all flights leaving Raleigh-Durham International Airport were canceled after 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, and many early morning flights Thursday were canceled. 

RDU officials also canceled the open house for the renovations to the airport’s new Terminal 1 on Saturday without plans to reschedule the event. Other events were postponed, including the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting Thursday. The meeting has been moved to March 27.

Durham Public Schools, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, and Orange County Schools all let out early on Wednesday and all announced closings for Thursday.

The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill also announced that it was cancelling classes and closing offices today. The severe weather policy for Duke University and Duke University Health System has been extended until 7 p.m. Thursday. No classes Thursday or Thursday night. 

Effects of the storm were expected to continue to be felt in later days. In a news release issued around 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, Gov. Pat McCrory’s Press Office said utilities were citing about 101,600 power outages statewide, mostly in coastal and eastern counties. More outages were expected.

Duke Energy was reporting 15 outages in Durham County Wednesday afternoon, and 104 in Orange County. That was down to a single outage in Durham and 14 in Orange before 7 p.m. Lisa Parrish, a spokeswoman for Duke Energy, said the utility was bringing in 3,400 lineman and other technical crew members from Ohio, Kentucky and Florida to help restore power. She said the utility was asking for patience from customers, especially those in the eastern part of the state.

“We’re expecting multi-day outages,” she said.

McCrory had declared a state of emergency for North Carolina for the storm on Tuesday. That’s the first step in getting federal funds to help with the cost of public infrastructure and emergency repairs.

The National Weather Service’s winter storm warning was in effect for parts of central North Carolina including Durham County until 6 p.m. Thursday. Ellis said the precipitation was expected to change over to freezing rain overnight, and more snow was expected in the late morning to afternoon Thursday. He said the Durham area would see another inch or two of accumulation.

Meteorologist Jonathan Blaes said the storm will have “significant impacts” and will take some time to clean things up.

“It will be a storm that many people talk about and remember for many years,” he said.

Cliff Bellamy contributed to this report.