A full day of sleet and freezing rain Friday coated roads, downed trees and power lines, and left tens of thousands of Triangle residents without power by nightfall.
About 1,200 wrecks were reported on roads across the state, with three traffic deaths in Johnston, Iredell and Catawba counties, the Highway Patrol said. Johnston, Chatham and Wake counties opened storm shelters to provide respite for people stuck in the cold and dark.
The first hours of the winter storm brought mostly minor auto accidents and forced the closure of most schools and businesses, but nearly everyone had power through Friday morning.
That changed quickly around mid-afternoon as sleet shifted to freezing rain and wind speeds picked up to nearly 30 mph. Power outage reports began to roll in around 3 p.m., first in Johnston and Harnett counties, then in Wake.
By 4:30 p.m., 15,000 Duke Energy customers had lost power in the Triangle. By 7 p.m., the number had grown to about 30,000 in Wake, 23,000 in Johnston and 14,000 in Harnett – more than half of the roughly 115,000 outages reported statewide.
Johnston and Harnett were among the hardest-hit counties in the state, with more than a third of Duke customers there in the dark Friday night.
The numbers were expected to grow as the storm continued, with another round of freezing rain due to reach the Triangle around 10 p.m.
Duke Energy spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said the time needed to fix the outages will depend on the damage.
“Trees down on power lines, that’s a pretty easy fix,” she said. “Some of the other outages are a little more difficult, such as power lines that are down.”
In Raleigh, videos on social media showed transformers exploding in a blaze of colors.
There were fewer outages Friday in the western Triangle, where sleet and snow were more prevalent than freezing rain. Durham and Orange counties had only 18 customers without power at 7 p.m., according to Duke.
Duke Energy dispatched nearly 7,000 workers, some from as far as Michigan, to address the outages in North Carolina and South Carolina.
Wake County opened a shelter at Sanderson High School, 5500 Dixon Drive in Raleigh. Johnston opened its shelter at 6:30 p.m. at Clayton High School, 600 S. Fayetteville St.
On Friday night, the National Weather Service predicted a total ice accumulation of 0.25 to 0.5 inches by Saturday morning for Raleigh and areas north and west of the city, including Durham and Chapel Hill. For areas south and east of Raleigh toward Interstate 95, the forecast called for 0.1 to 0.25 inches of ice.
The wintry weather will continue Saturday with morning and afternoon showers, according to NWS meteorologists. Less than an inch of snow is expected.
Ice prompts crashes
Around 5 p.m., downed power lines prompted a shutdown of I-40 near N.C. 242 north of Benson. A morning wreck on I-95 near Kenly left one person dead.
Durham police reported 18 wrecks by late morning, mostly cars sliding off icy roads; Raleigh police responded to 44 crashes by 3 p.m. Around 11 a.m., an ambulance collided with a snow plow on Peace Street in downtown Raleigh, but no injuries were reported.
In a morning news conference, Gov. Pat McCrory urged drivers to stay off roads unless they have to travel, he said, adding that crews can clear roads faster if traffic is light.
“Now is not the time to take any unnecessary trips or any risks,” McCrory said. “If you do get on the roads, be very careful and don’t speed. Leave plenty of room between you and other vehicles.”
At Raleigh-Durham International Airport, nearly 400 flights were canceled Friday, a statement said. The aircraft tracking website flightaware.com showed that Delta and United flights had taken off, but most of the few planes moving were corporate or charter aircraft.
Sledding in the sleet
At first glance, Friday’s weather was not the winter wonderland that 8-year-old Kyle Bayer of Rolesville had hoped for. But he soon realized it was perfect sledding weather.
“We are seeing if some of the other boys can come out so we can take it to the big hill,” his mom, Susan Bayer, said. “Or they may decide to play football.”
Many other Rolesville children followed suit. They went outside in the morning, played for hours, stopped for lunch and then went back outside. Later, they would warm up in front of a movie with hot chocolate.
With schools closed, icy sledding was one of the only options for getting out of the house. Many shops and restaurants closed early Friday or didn’t open at all.
By lunchtime, Christy Rayle had closed three of the four Which Wich sandwich shops she owns in Raleigh and Durham. Her Brier Creek location stayed open through lunch, staffed by one employee who lives close enough to walk.
“The employees’ safety comes first,” Rayle said.
She said the winter storm likely will cost her about $10,000 in sales, and hourly employees are losing a day of work. “It stinks for the hourly workforce, which is pretty much the majority of the retail and restaurant workers,” she said.
Right at Home, an in-home care service for disabled and elderly adults, managed to get caregivers to all of its clients who can’t miss a day, marketing administrator Danielle Weaver said.
“We’ve had a couple of caregivers who are staying overnight and are working long hours,” Weaver said.
Schools, offices shut down
All schools, and most businesses and government offices were shuttered Friday. And some government services, such as Wake County’s solid waste facilities, planned to remain closed through the weekend.
Go Raleigh buses ended their routes Friday early, with the last buses leaving Moore Square station at 8 p.m.
Raleigh planned to resume bus service at 8 a.m. Saturday, with the downtown R-Line starting at 10.
A full list of closings is available at nando.com/closings.
Staff writers Kathryn Trogdon, Ron Gallagher and Jonathan Alexander contributed to this report.