We were warned about the big NC snow storm, but still surprised

Kevin Miller looks out of the passenger window of his friend's car as they sit in stuck traffic Wednesday afternoon Feb. 12, 2014 after snow and ice caused massive traffic jams in Raleigh, NC.
Kevin Miller looks out of the passenger window of his friend's car as they sit in stuck traffic Wednesday afternoon Feb. 12, 2014 after snow and ice caused massive traffic jams in Raleigh, NC.

We knew there was a big winter storm coming Wednesday. But we never expected it to strike the Triangle so hard and so fast.

Employers and workers figured there would be time for everybody to get home safely before the streets and freeways got slippery. They were wrong.

Without the usual preliminary flurries, heavy snow began to fall here between noon and 1 p.m. Wednesday – just as universities, government agencies, Research Triangle Park firms and other workplaces were cutting the workday short for tens of thousands of employees.

“When I left the office at noon, the roads were dry and there was nothing coming out of the sky,” said John Iwaniszek, 54, of Raleigh. “Within 30 minutes, the roads were inaccessible. It snowed unbelievably fast.”

The early-afternoon rush hour clogged streets and freeways with cars that quickly began slipping into ditches and sliding down hills. Thousands of commuters across the Triangle spent two to six hours getting home in three to eight inches of snow.

The snow jam is prompting government leaders, employers and commuters to rethink their plans for responding to hazardous weather. Triangle residents realize it could have been much worse. Just two weeks ago, the Atlanta region was shut down by a midday storm that forced drivers to spend the night in cars, stores and schools.

Of the eight North Carolina deaths attributed so far to snow and ice that immobilized much of the state from Wednesday into the weekend, none was linked to the icy urban gridlock. Law enforcement officers took pains to make sure there were no people trapped overnight in the hundreds of cars Triangle drivers abandoned on glazed streets and highways.

Still, it was the lousiest day to be on the road here since Jan. 19, 2005, when a lighter snowfall combined with heavier traffic to make the Triangle one big skating rink. Raleigh workers left their offices that day about the same time as Wake County schools started closing down. But the roads were so icy that many bus drivers had to turn back, and 3,000 students spent the night in their school buildings.

“This one was nowhere nearly as bad as the 2005 event,” said Eric Lamb, Raleigh’s transportation planning manager.

This time, several school districts were closed for the day Wednesday – including Wake.

Forecasting the storm

Weather forecasters and Gov. Pat McCrory had warned North Carolinians for days that the snow was coming. Government agencies and other big employers consulted meteorologists and calculated when to send non-essential workers home before the storm was expected to hit.

Duke University, one the region’s largest employers, announced at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday that classes for its 14,000 students would end at 12:50 p.m. Offices would close at 1 p.m. for the portion of its 35,000 employees not needed for the care and feeding of students, hospital patients and laboratory animals on the Durham campus. The announcement said no snow accumulation was likely before 2 p.m. and “conditions are expected to deteriorate after 5 p.m.”

JoAnne VanTuyl was teaching one of those last classes at Duke, and she wasn’t concerned when it started snowing about 12:45 p.m.

“But by the time I drove out of the parking deck (about 1:15 p.m.), the snow was coming fast and thick and the traffic was already completely backed up,” said VanTuyl, 61. She made the first two miles to U.S. 15-501 in an hour, and arrived home in Carrboro after another two hours.

“Anybody with a good weather app could see how huge the storm was and when it was going to hit,” VanTuyl said. “Everyone from Duke hit the road at the same time, and that exacerbated the problem.”

Kyle Cavanaugh, Duke University’s vice president for administration, said the meteorologists he consulted had not expected the snow to hit so quickly.

“They’re doing the very best they can, and it is an imprecise science, at best,” Cavanaugh said. Duke’s weather decisions are made by a standing committee of 30 administrators.

“I remember folks questioning me – ‘Did you call it too early?’” Cavanaugh said. “I think the speed of this one did kind of challenge everybody.”

McCrory: Review neeeded

Frank Perry, the state secretary of public safety, has two meteorologists on his staff but still found himself out driving in bad weather Wednesday morning. He was trying to make it to a Lumberton hospital – “really against better advice,” he said later – to visit Master Trooper Robert Hunt of the State Highway Patrol, who had been injured Tuesday in an accident on an icy highway.

Perry made phone contact with Hunt and his family, then he cut the trip short and headed back to Raleigh.

“The trooper, being a trooper, urged me, ‘Please don’t come – it’s getting bad too quickly,” Perry said.

Driving back to Raleigh, Perry contacted his office shortly before noon to announce that it was time for non-essential employees in the Department of Public Safety to go home for the day.

“I wanted to be sure people were getting out, ahead of the storm, because I was in the middle of it,” Perry said. “And before it hit Raleigh, I wanted them to head home.”

He acknowledged that he and other bosses made the call too late to avert gridlock in Raleigh.

“We had a problem, but thankfully to my knowledge there were no deaths attributed to that, at least in the Triangle area,” Perry said. “This episode should inform future decision-makers. I think for most part things were done in an orderly way.”

McCrory told reporters Friday that his department heads would study the state’s storm response to look for possible improvements, and he mentioned in particular the “extremely bureaucratic” adverse-weather policy for state employees.

The 2009 policy warns of disciplinary action against emergency employees who fail to report to work. The governor suggested the policy might not be fair for some workers who are concerned about their safety in hazardous weather.

“They feel obligated to come to work because there is a punitive policy against that,” McCrory said. “We need to review that policy to insure that we don’t put all the responsibility on the state employees to make that decision but there is more centralized focus on that.”

Karen Latta Cain said her North Raleigh employer waited too long to send workers home at 1:15 p.m. Wednesday.

It was snowing hard as she left work, “only to find gridlock just outside the parking lot, and the first of many accidents down the hill heading to Capital Boulevard,” Cain said.

After a two-hour layover at a Bojangles restaurant, she finished her five-hour trip home.

“I witnessed the beginnings of riots on New Hope Church Road,” said Cain, 51, of Raleigh. “People were sliding downhill and slamming into other cars and keeping on driving. I was scared.”

Next time, Cain said, “I’m leaving before that snow starts falling. Because it fell fast.”

A sudden snowstorm

Linda Seligman teaches at Forest View Elementary in Durham, and she lingered in her classroom for an hour after the students were sent home at noon. Then it started snowing, but she figured she had time to run an errand on the way home.

“I thought, if we’re going to have school Friday, I need to go get some construction paper. And that was a mistake,” Seligman said. The snow was heavy by the time she stopped at the art supply store, and she advised the store manager to close up and send his workers home. Her drive home to Hillsborough, normally 20 minutes, took two hours.

“My mother was on the phone with me when I was going up this scary hill, and it was, ‘Oh no, Mom, there are a couple of cars fishtailing in front of me.’

“I was just really surprised how everyone was just slipping and sliding, and cars were off the road,” said Seligman, 59. “If we’d had a little snow shower first, people would have taken notice. But it was like Mother Nature turned the faucet on all of a sudden.”

Christine MacPherson’s drive home Wednesday from Chapel Hill to Carrboro took more than two hours. She started home too late, too – having taken her cues from school officials and local governments.

“I was sure that when so many businesses and public services were setting a 1 p.m. closing time, that it would include enough leeway for staff to travel home before the storm,” said MacPherson, who works for a nonprofit social services agency.

She figures Triangle residents were complacent after schools closed for a January snow storm that turned out to be a dud.

Lamb, Raleigh’s transportation planning manager, agrees.

“One problem the forecasters had this time was a ‘crying wolf’ factor from the previous snow,” Lamb said.

‘Should have listened’

John Iwaniszek’s West Raleigh office closed at noon Wednesday, but he wasn’t ready to quit work for the day. After a seven-minute drive home for a quick lunch of homemade tortilla soup and gruyere cheese toast, he planned to return to work to pick up his laptop.

He never made it back to the office in the sudden snow. When his pickup truck balked on a hill in his neighborhood, he parked it on a side street and walked home.

“It snowed unbelievably fast,” Iwaniszek said. “I’d not seen that before. Sometimes I think my employers act out of an overabundance of caution, but this is one time I should have listened to them. I think a lot of people made the wrong decision about this.”