McCrory says NC learned lessons from this week's storm

cjarvis@newsobserver.com akenney@newsobserver.comFebruary 14, 2014 

  • House fire blamed on space heater

    An early morning fire Friday left five people homeless in Raleigh after combustible material near a heater ignited, firefighters said.

    The fire was reported at 4:27 a.m. at a wood-frame house at 1326 Armstrong Circle, off Sanderford Road in Southeast Raleigh, Lt. Grant Williams said. The first firefighters to reach the house found heavy fire coming from the roof.

    Firefighters were able to limit damage to about half of the building, Williams said.

    The Raleigh Fire Department urges people to be careful when using supplemental heating and suggests that all combustible materials, such as drapes or chairs, be at least three feet away from any heating unit.

  • Price-gouging complaints

    Anyone who thinks they were overcharged for vehicle towing or storage can file a complaint with the Consumer Protection Division of the N.C. Department of Justice. They can go online to www.ncdoj.gov or call 1-877-5-NO-SCAM toll-free within North Carolina.

  • Finding your car

    If you think your vehicle was moved at the direction of the City of Raleigh to facilitate plowing, call 919-996-1220 or 919-996-1221. The lines will be staffed at 7 a.m. Saturday.

— Gov. Pat McCrory wrapped up four days of winter storm updates on Friday with a checklist of what the state needs to do better in the next natural disaster:

• Give drivers clearer information about what happens to abandoned cars and trucks.

• Cancel school sports events when appropriate.

• Do not put state employees at risk by pressuring them to travel to work.

• Make sure there are enough resources in areas that typically receive lots of snow.

While state officials reviewed each day’s events most evenings, McCrory said, there will be a more complete assessment of the state’s response in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, those four topics demand immediate attention.

“This was one of the most unique ice storms and snow storms this state has ever seen, from the coast all the way to the Tennessee border,” the governor said.

The two-day storm covered much of the state in snow and ice, crippled traffic in places, and caused hundreds of accidents and thousands of power outages. At least eight deaths have been attributed to the storm statewide. McCrory declared a state of emergency on Wednesday.

While state agencies earlier in the week were advising motorists that abandoned vehicles would be left alone or moved to safer, nearby locations, that wasn’t always the case. There have been reports of companies towing vehicles and charging exorbitant prices.

Asked about that at Friday’s news conference, McCrory said those reports would be investigated, and noted that the attorney general has promised to aggressively pursue price-gouging.

Attorney General Roy Cooper on Friday issued a warning to towing companies that bad weather doesn’t justify raising prices. Cooper said more than a dozen people had called his consumer protection unit to report charges of $400 or more, compared to the typical towing rate of $100 to $150.

The governor called for clarification and consistency among state, county and city agencies spelling out how abandoned vehicles will be cleared.

‘Insane’ cost

That comes as little consolation for Kimberly Siems of Raleigh, who said her car was taken from the shoulder on Interstate 540 and towed about seven miles at a cost of $331.

Siems’ BMW became stuck on the interstate after four hours of driving just a few miles from Research Triangle Park when cars started spinning out of control in front of her on an incline.

“My wheels were spinning – there was no way,” said Siems. “So I pulled to the shoulder.”

A trooper soon arrived, she said, but the two of them were unable to free her car. The trooper instead directed her to a spot on the side of the road.

“I backed it up on the shoulder, not in the lane of traffic,” she said. An hours-long saga, and the help of a stranger and a friend, finally got her home.

The car was gone when she returned at noon on Friday, though several others remained.

She eventually learned that Raleigh Towing & Recovery had taken the car to its lot on Navajo Drive, close to Raleigh’s Beltline. The cost, she said, was “insane.”

Carol Hodge, a dispatcher for the towing company, said that troopers chose which vehicles would be towed. The company had worked all through the night to help clear the roads, she said.

“We don’t just go out and get ’em,” Hodge said. “They call us to get them.”

Lt. J.C. Morton of the state Highway Patrol confirmed that troopers were selecting cars for towing, and that companies by default take cars back to their lots.

Morton said companies set their own rates, but have to keep them in line with industry standards in order to stay on the patrol’s “rotation system.”

In a press release during the storm, state officials said that N.C. Department of Transportation crews would try to move dangerously positioned cars to the shoulder. The Highway Patrol, meanwhile, would coordinate “with towing companies to move vehicles to a safe location,” according to the release.

Stranded for sports

McCrory also called for a review and clarification of when high schools and colleges allow sports events to be held during dangerous weather. The governor noted that a bus of basketball players from South Carolina was stuck in Surry County for an extended period on Thursday.

“I would ask the question to the conferences, what the heck were you doing on a bus last night?” McCrory said. “… I think we need to review that policy and decision-making.”

McCrory was referring to a bus from from Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., which was returning from a Wednesday game in Virginia when it became stranded for 12 hours.

The team stayed overnight in Virginia and was making its way back home on Thursday on Interstate 77/74 when a jackknifed tractor-trailer rig blocked the highway for five or six hours, according to university spokeswoman Martha Hunn.

She said the team had food, and state troopers reported they made periodic sweeps to make sure motorists in the area had food and water. But when the accident was cleared, the bus wouldn’t start, because of mechanical problems developed when the bus was idling for so long to remain heated, Hunn said.

Players had to wait for another bus to pick them up, and that bus was delayed after being stuck in traffic on the way, she said. They eventually arrived in Conway about 5 a.m. Friday, she said.

McCrory said places like the hilly Surry County interstate needed to be better staged with emergency resources. State Highway Patrol First Sgt. Jeff Gordon said about 21 inches of snow fell in the final surge of weather.

McCrory was also referring to the Duke-Carolina game that was scheduled to be played in Chapel Hill on Wednesday until it was canceled – less than four hours before tipoff, when fans were already there or on their way.

Most likely no high school sports events were held during the storm, according to the N.C. High School Athletic Association. School districts have policies that cancel athletic practices and events if school is not held, except on weekends.

Davis Whitfield, the association’s commissioner, said officials are busy re-arranging schedules for the wrestling regionals that were scheduled to run Friday and Saturday. One regional did begin Friday, in Pitt County, where conditions weren’t as bad and students were in school.

Other regionals were being moved to Saturday and Sunday, and possibly Monday afternoon, he said.

The governor also said he was concerned that some state employees were risking their safety because of a policy that he said seemed to be “extremely bureaucratic and also punitive.” He said he didn’t want all the responsibility to be on the employee.

Under the state’s adverse weather policy, employees have to make a good-faith effort to get to work. If they can’t, their options are taking unpaid adverse weather days, using vacation, bonus leave or comp time, working from home, or making up their time later.

Emergency personnel are required to report to work or face discipline.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576; Twitter: @CraigJ_NandO

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service