Heavy, wet snow that fell before dawn, followed by a calm, overcast day that kept it from melting, knocked out power for about a quarter of Duke Energy’s Triangle customers on Thursday.
Wake and Durham counties were the hardest hit by the storm, which dumped several waterlogged inches throughout the region and caused widespread blackouts.
The aftereffects of the overnight snowstorm were comparable to a those of a classic ice storm: downed trees and snapped power lines in neighborhood after neighborhood. The extent of the damage – and especially the continuing outages during the day Thursday, long after the storm had passed – caught public safety officials and utility companies by surprise.
“We were having increasing outages throughout the day,” said Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks. “We saw outages rising even as we were restoring power.”
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Duke Energy, whose customers bore the brunt of the storm, said late Thursday that it doesn’t expect to restore power to most customers until midnight Friday, and warned that more outages could be on the way after temperatures dropped below freezing overnight. It’s not clear when all power would be restored.
County governments in Wake, Johnston and Orange opened shelters on Thursday evening for people whose power was still not restored. Temperatures were expected to dip into the 20s overnight.
At its peak Thursday morning, the storm had caused 230,000 power outages statewide. By about 7 p.m., about 28,000 Duke customers in Wake County, 10,600 in Durham, 4,900 in Chatham and 3,200 in Orange were still without power.
North Carolina’s electric cooperatives, which include customers in Wake Forest and Hillsborough, had about 4,500 customers without power by 5:30 p.m., down from nearly 16,000 about midday.
Thousands of the outages affected neighborhood utility lines serving several households, as opposed to crippling high-voltage lines that serve multiple neighborhoods. That meant that Duke utility crews had to make thousands of individual repairs throughout the day to restore power.
The heavy, wet snow sat on trees for hours, without sunlight to melt it or wind to knock it to the ground. The heavy burden that many trees could have endured for a short time caused intensifying stress as the hours ground on until limbs and entire trees gave way.
“Wherever we have trees, that’s where we were having outages,” Brooks said.
Duke’s two utility companies, Duke Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Progress, didn’t stage utility crews in advance, not knowing where the storm would strike. But afterward, the company compensated by doubling its restoration efforts in the Triangle with contractors and extra utility crews.
For some, the break in routine was an adventure. After power was knocked out to four residence halls, students crossed the N.C. Central University campus Thursday rolling suitcases and hauling laundry baskets with their belongings. Some had evacuated in the middle of the night, pillows and blankets in hand, to the university’s gym, where they slept on the floor.
The power had gone out in the wee hours, and residence hall assistants knocked on doors to wake students to evacuate in the pre-dawn darkness.
“It literally looked like a scene out of ‘Titanic,’ ” said Kristin Ellis, a junior from Washington, D.C.
Cindy Privette said power at her farm north of Zebulon was out from 9 a.m. to noon Thursday. A primary power line to Zebulon runs through her land, which she said led to her power being restored sooner than others’ in the area.
“I’m grateful every day for the ancestors that allowed the power company to come across this property,” Privette said. “The first thing I did was turn on the coffee pot.”
Staff writers Jane Stancill and Aaron Moody contributed.