Sun bathes highways, but officials warn that icy nights remain a danger for drivers

akenney@newsobserver.com rgallagher@newsobserver.comFebruary 13, 2014 

— Friday came with bright sunshine and above-freezing temperatures, and National Weather Service maps did not show warnings or watches over the Triangle for the first time in several days.

State officials stressed, however, that the days after a storm can be more dangerous than the storm itself, and a rash of morning accidents helped make their point when driers encountered black ice.

Black ice had been expected to form overnight and it did, and emergency officials warned that the same thins is likely to happen Saturday morning.

At a Friday news conference on storm response, Gov. Pat McCrory and others somberly noted a hit-and-run crash on Interstate 40 in Wake County that killed two people who were out of their vehicles to help after an accident.

“Remain vigilant,” State Highway Patrol Col. William Grey said, and he urged drivers to stay off the roads after dark Friday because of water likely freezing on roads.

Schools were closed all around the area Friday, but other things were beginning to return to normal.

Air traffic was coming into and out of Raleigh-Durham International Airport after dozens of canceled flights Thursday.

Triangle Transit said its buses had begun running, and local buses in Durham, Raleigh and Cary were set to begin later in the morning.

“I’m proud of the people for dealing with this natural disaster,” McCrory said, and he added, “We don’t know of anyone who spent a night in a car” Wednesday or Thursday.”

The state Department of Transportation said interstates and state and U.S. highways in the Triangle were generally clear by mid-morning Friday, and its focus was shifting to secondary roads.

The two-day storm prompted a new round of closings and cancellations. Schools in the Triangle remain closed, and Duke University, N.C. Central University, N.C. State University and UNC-Chapel Hill all canceled classes Friday. Wake Technical Community College called off classes Friday and Saturday.

Other institutions and businesses were hoping to get things back to normal Friday, albeit late. After being closed Thursday, the Wake County courts planned to operate on a two-hour delay Friday.

Verizon reported that it was having storm-related cell service problems in North Carolina on Friday morning and said engineers were working to fix them.

The weather service had warned that it could have been the worst winter storm in central North Carolina since the ice storm of December 2002 that left many communities paralyzed for days. The freezing rain that fell overnight Wednesday pulled down branches and power lines, causing scattered outages that affected thousands of homes and businesses, but nowhere near as many as in 2002.

As of 9 a.m., Duke Energy Progress had restored service to all but 93 customers in Wake County, and Duke Energy reported 456 outages in all of its territory in North Carolina and South Carolina.

The biggest problem for Duke Progress appeared to be on the southeast coast, where it showed almost 27,000 customers remained powerless in New Hanover and surrounding counties.

Duke said about 500 workers had been brought in from Duke facilities in the Midwest and Florida, and another 500 were expected to arrive Thursday. Meanwhile, the state Department of Transportation began shifting trucks and personnel from east to west Thursday to deal with the second part of the storm.

Area hospitals reported an uptick in emergency room visits on Wednesday, mostly due to motor vehicle accidents, but said things had generally quieted down on Thursday.

“Despite the winter storm, we are fortunate to be operating close to ‘business as usual’ after the winter weather and gridlock subsided,” said Kristin Kelly Gruman, spokeswoman for WakeMed.

Travel headaches continue

The storm’s initial burst of snow and sleet dropped anywhere from 3 to 8 inches in the Triangle, with the heavier amounts generally to the west and north. Another inch or two was expected with the second round of snow Thursday afternoon.

Some airlines resumed flights at Raleigh-Durham International Airport on Thursday afternoon, but passengers were urged to check with their airline before heading to the airport for the next couple of days, particularly as the storm hit cities in the Northeast. About three-quarters of RDU’s normal 400 daily arrivals and departures were canceled Thursday, including all Jet Blue, Air Canada Jazz and United Airlines flights. Some Friday morning flights had already been canceled, too.

About 50 people ended up spending Wednesday night in the airport terminal after the storm canceled their flights, said RDU spokeswoman Mindy Hamlin. “We provided blankets and pillows, and Wake County brought out dinners for them,” Hamlin said.

Ian Geery, a field technician who works on cellular towers, said his trip home to Phoenix had been delayed from Thursday to Saturday. It was Geery’s second encounter with a crippling Southern snowstorm; he was working in Atlanta when the last major snowstorm rolled through, and he and his crew were trapped on Atlanta freeways for 6 hours.

Less than two weeks later, he and his team rolled into Raleigh just hours before the storm.

“We're basically arriving at these cities as they’re just getting pounded by snow,” said Geery. In Raleigh, he says, he and his team saved time by sticking to back streets in their Ford F-250 – a lesson they learned in Atlanta.

“We were only on the road for about an hour, an hour and a half longer than we were supposed to be,” said Geery, 26.

All Amtrak train service in the state was canceled Thursday, and it was not clear Thursday night when it would resume.

Triangle Transit said it would operate full service on Friday, starting at 7 a.m., though it said customers should expect some delays. Capital Area Transit in Raleigh will begin running at 7 a.m., too, but on a less-frequent Saturday schedule. Chapel Hill Transit buses will not begin service before 10 a.m. Friday.

Road crews were able to start clearing some secondary roads in the Triangle on Thursday, after concentrating on highways and main thoroughfares. They’ll continue the job Friday, helped by the return of sunshine and temperatures inching into the 40s for the first time since Monday.

There’s another chance of precipitation on Friday night, but forecasters expect it to fall as a cold rain.

Staff writer John Murawski contributed.

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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