Winter storm Jonas, made mostly of sleet and freezing rain, created perilous driving conditions in Johnston County on Friday. The roads cleared quickly on Saturday, but that was a little comfort to the thousands of households without power.
The ice on Friday contributed to one fatal crash on Interstate 95 and many other accidents around the county and Triangle region. Early Friday evening, Interstate 40 near was closed in both directions because of fallen power lines crossing the roadway.
Johnston County Emergency Communications Director Jason Barbour said he had his communications center fully staffed at 6 a.m. Friday. But the call volume quickly overwhelmed the number of phones, he said, forcing him to open the backup 911 center.
“It’s bad out there,” Barbour said Friday morning. “There have been a bunch of wrecks; it’s gotten worse than we expected.”
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The storm strengthened during Friday’s commuting hours, patching roadways with ice as residents traveled to work.
“It doesn’t matter how many wheels driving a car has, it can’t drive on ice,” Barbour said. “Our message is just don’t drive until the roads improve.”
Barbour said the county’s one fatality, a truck crash on I-95 near Kenly, was a result of the storm. He said his office had been inundated with calls Friday morning, though he had not yet tallied the number.
Friday afternoon, things turned worse. Barbour said the 911 center had received “hundreds and hundreds of calls” throughout the day. The county opened its emergency operations center, allowing agencies to work out of a single location and better coordinate response efforts.
“We’re in a full-scale state of emergency,” Barbour said. “We’ve had structure fires, downed trees, downed power lines – you name it, we’ve had it.”
The Town of Clayton was one of the few in North Carolina to open its offices on Friday, though it shuttered all but emergency operations at 3 p.m. Smithfield had planned to open its offices at 11 a.m. but soon abandoned the idea. The county did the same. Johnston County schools announced on Thursday that they would not be open on Friday.
In Clayton on Thursday and into Friday morning, crews spread 3,500 gallons of brine on town streets, which were holding up well Friday morning.
“There have been no accidents reported by the police department or fire department,” public information officer Stacy Beard said. “We haven’t had to close any of the historic trouble spots around town, mostly the steep hills. But there’s definitely the potential for it to get worse.”
But freezing rain weighing down power lines led to a power outage Friday afternoon in East Clayton, including downtown and the Glen Laurel and Walden neighborhoods. Beard said a few hundred people lost power and that many called 911, adding to the extremely high call volume.
“The message we’re trying to get out is that Johnston County 911 dispatchers are overwhelmed with just people who want to know when their power will be back on,” Beard said.
Because of power outages in and around Clayton, the county opened a storm shelter at Clayton High School on Friday. The shelter remained open Saturday night.
Like its Johnston County neighbors Benson, Selma and Smithfield, Clayton operates its own electricity department and frequently touts its ability to get power back on line faster than private power company Duke Energy. Beard said the town’s only real preventative measure against ice is regular tree trimming during the year.
“What we’ve done is make sure the limbs aren’t at risk of falling on the power lines; we have a pretty aggressive tree-trimming program,” Beard said. “The town is divided into quadrants, and we hire a tree-trimming service to do a fourth of the town every year. That’s our best preventative measure.”
Across Johnston County, the number of households without power stood at 4,800 Friday afternoon. Saturday afternoon, that number was 22,000, which was down from overnight, when nearly 28,000 Johnston households were without power.
At Heidi’s Two-Wheel Cafe in Smithfield on Saturday, the first question staff and diners asked each other was, “Do you have power?” Most often, the answer was yes, though a lot of people reported outages of varying lengths on Friday.
But sometimes, the answer was no. One couple who live near the Country Club of Johnston County said Duke Energy had told them their power, which went out Friday, wouldn’t be back on until 11 p.m. Monday. They were hoping that was the worst-case scenario.
Throughout Smithfield on Saturday, downed tree limbs were commonplace, though most of the town had power. An exception was the intersection of West Market Street and Wilson’s Mills Road, where the McDonald’s, Food Lion and Roses store were closed Saturday afternoon.
Johnston County Emergency Services sent out a release Thursday encouraging residents to prepare for a weekend of bad weather by having food, water and needed medications on hand before the storm hit.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson