Surprise snowfall stopped Moore County in its tracks and left many in their cars for hours

Thelma and Louise hit the snow-covered streets of Southern Pines

"Every time it snows, we always come and ride," said Kenny Tyndall as he drives his friends Molly Ayers and Jeff Cooper around in his wagon pulled by his mules Thelma and Louise in downtown Southern Pines.
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"Every time it snows, we always come and ride," said Kenny Tyndall as he drives his friends Molly Ayers and Jeff Cooper around in his wagon pulled by his mules Thelma and Louise in downtown Southern Pines.

People across the nation laughed at Raleigh-ites in January 2005 when an unpredicted snowfall brought city traffic to a standstill and left people stranded in their vehicles for hours. But nobody was laughing when a similar scenario brought gridlock to Moore County on Wednesday night.

“A dusting of snow,” forecasters said, was all Moore County could expect from the nor’easter that would come spinning up the East Coast. More of a painterly phrase than a meteorological term, “a dusting” conjures romantic, postcard-worthy images, not fear. It doesn’t close schools or businesses. It doesn’t even send most people to the grocery store for bread and milk.

So as the snow began to fall in the southern part of the county after 2 p.m. Wednesday, Moore Countians kept doing their jobs, sitting in their classrooms, attending their regularly scheduled meetings.

“We stopped to have a beer,” said Kenny Tyndall, who was visiting Southern Pines on Wednesday from his home in Hoke County. “When we went in, it wasn’t doing nothing. When we came out 40 minutes later, the roads were completely covered.”

As county officials and employers realized they were in for more than a dusting, they began closing schools and businesses. Suddenly, just as happened in Raleigh in 2005, it seemed all of Moore County’s 95,000 residents were on the road at once.

Chris Roseman from Fuquay-Varina tries to get un-stuck after his car spun out on the ice on the Outer Beltline between Lake Boone Trail and Wade Ave in Raleigh in Jan. 2005. The Triangle was taken by a surprise winter storm, closing schools, icing roads and causing traffic problems. Chris Seward

Just like with Raleigh’s 2005 snowpocalypse, it had been colder than normal for days in Moore, so the ground was cold. When it fell, the snow immediately began to accumulate, making the roads as slick as swamp water.

“We have a four-wheel-drive truck and every time we tried to go up a hill, we went sideways,” said Lou Smith, who was out with her husband Wednesday afternoon. She had been to a meeting in Southern Pines, and when it broke up around 4:45 p.m., the couple had planned to stop by a hardware store and fill a propane tank on their way home.

But everywhere they went, cars were turned around the wrong way, were off in the ditch or had run into each other. Many roads had so many wrecked and disabled cars that police had to shut the roads down. When officers ran out of patrol cars to use as roadblocks, they summoned fire trucks.

By the time we got home, my knuckles were white.

Lou Smith, who was riding with her husband in Moore County on Wednesday night. What should have been a half hour trip took two and a half hours

With all the road closures, what should have been a 30-minute ride home for the Smiths turned into a two-and-a-half-hour-long series of detours through Moore County’s back roads.

“By the time we got home, my knuckles were white,” Smith said. And she wasn’t the one driving.

Except for a couple of hours early Thursday morning, Public Safety Director Bryan Phillips did not go outside his county office building for 24 hours. He didn’t have an exact count, but said emergency dispatchers had received between 400 and 500 calls during the storm. Several of those were for a vehicle that ran off a road in Carthage Wednesday night and went into a creek, overturning and killing the two men inside. It took hours for emergency workers to retrieve the vehicle and the men’s bodies.

Snowfall totals around the county ranged from three to six inches, enough to cause problems on all the major roads and in every community: Southern Pines, Pinehurst, Aberdeen. Sections of N.C. 211 and N.C. 5 had to be shut down, and U.S. 1 had a traffic jam almost 10 miles long at one point.

East Indiana Avenue in Southern Pines, which serves several large residential developments and is used by many as a connector to Fort Bragg, turned into a frozen parking lot. The road has several inclines and one notable steep hill that knowing locals will drive miles out of their way to avoid when conditions turn icy. On Wednesday night, in a game of commuter-versus-gravity, nature won again and again, leaving cars backed up in both directions.

Some drivers finally abandoned their cars and others reportedly stayed overnight with strangers who live along the road.

Robert Royal was appalled that 6 inches of snow – whether it had been predicted or not – could bring the county to a halt.

“You call this snow?” he said angrily, while shoveling the driveway of a friend on East Indiana Avenue. “I’m from Minnesota. This is not snow. This is flurries. What are you gonna do when it really snows?”

On Thursday, a bright sun made the problem look more manageable, and people began to collect their wits and their wheels. By midday, a dozen vehicles remained stuck along East Indiana, but exhausted drivers from companies such as Rockwell Towing Services in Aberdeen were picking them up as fast as they could.

“It’s been a real busy day,” Brenda Rockwell said, without venturing a guess how many calls her drivers had answered. “They worked until 4:30 this morning, and were back out at 7 a.m..”

As the day wore on, county residents began to venture out of their houses. Children pulled each other in sleds, couples walked dogs, business owners tossed rock salt and shoveled their sidewalks.

To help lighten the mood, Tyndall, known as the “Mule Man,” hitched up Thelma and Louise, two beasts he had brought to town in a trailer, and had them pull a buggy around downtown Southern Pines. He stopped several times to pick up riders or let people rub the animals’ noses.

A handful of businesses opened in Southern Pines, including a coffee shop and a restaurant.

“Snow Day!” said a celebratory sign outside the coffee house.

What else was there to do?

“It’s just one of those things,” said Phillips, the public safety director. “The storm shifted and forecasters missed. We just have to deal with it.”

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin

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