A snowstorm creates havoc in the Triangle

February 13, 2014 

JOHN HANSEN — jhansen@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

It was pretty. You had to give Mother Nature that. But otherwise, Wednesday’s snowstorm was a mess in terms of traffic and inconvenience and, yes, some danger for folks trying to get home from work. Thursday brought early melting, then more snow and ice.

The good news was that power outages were minimal in this area. The statewide news was worse, with an estimated 100,000 people without electricity. At least three deaths were attributed to the storm statewide.

The most widespread storm condition was man-made: traffic gridlock. The situation raises questions about whether there should be a better way for the region to react to snow in the middle of a workday. In the Internet era, shouldn’t more businesses tell employees it’s OK to stay home when a big storm is expected? And, thinking further out, isn’t it time Triangle residents had some alternative to their cars in slippery weather? Many a driver stuck in traffic Wednesday must have dreamed of having the option of taking a train.

Wake County school officials, who heard a few complaints about an early decision to close schools, must have felt a sense of satisfaction. Had they not called off schools, as had other officials in neighboring counties, the traffic jams in the area could have been far worse.

Many recall the January 2005 storm that seemed to be a dusting but packed a wallop in terms of traffic tie-ups, accidents and stranded schoolchildren and motorists. The troubles seemed to be the result of lots of people trying to get home and to pick up their children from school. Until they got on the road, many didn’t know what they were up against.

This time, the school pickup wasn’t a problem. But many drivers were stranded for a while, and some even abandoned their cars and walked. There were lots of close calls, but it could have been worse.

There were some lighter moments. David Crabtree, the WRAL-TV anchorman always cool under fire, became a little exasperated with viewers who called to complain about their afternoon shows not being on. Lots of people have to go to work, Crabtree said, and they need information. And Twitter carried conspiracy theories from UNC fans about why the Duke-UNC men’s basketball game was called off late. They speculated that Duke didn’t want to play before a crowd full of rowdy students who picked up prime seats from Rams Club members who couldn’t make it. Duke said the team bus couldn’t get to Chapel Hill.

Even in the heat, or the cold, of the moment, some good neighbors helped people get their cars out of trouble and gave other drivers rides home. Law officers had their hands full but handled their chores with calm.

But did we handle this episode as well as we might have? Some of our neighbors who have joined us from the Northeast wonder why snow always seems to cause such chaos here.

Let’s hope some lessons were learned. State and local officials charged with dealing with “weather events” always need to study preparation and response once a storm has passed. Something generally can be improved every time.

While the storm had some echoes from 2005, people did not spend the night on highways in freezing misery. And children did not spend the night at school.

The main tests of response to such a storm are whether problems were handled, whether serious accidents were prevented and whether residents got home, got fed and stayed warm.

Gov. Pat McCrory did get out front, as a governor should, and did the right thing in suggesting that state workers do their jobs from home Thursday as long as the storm’s consequences, mainly the risk in icy roads, lingered.

Many of those who made the tricky drive home shared the same feeling: Let this be the last hard breath of winter.

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