They knew it was coming. But drivers in North Carolina still fell prey to the winter storm that the National Weather Service predicted would be "potentially crippling" to the area. Even those who left just after noon have been trapped by the heavy snow that arrived today.
"Snow arrives in the Triangle as expected but causes gridlock anyway," reads the headline in the Raleigh News Observer, referring to the Research Triangle of the cities Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. The intense traffic came one day after Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency ahead of the winter storm.
From what we're seeing, people are blaming the problem on two factors: The snow came on fast and immediately stuck to roads; and most commuters who worked Wednesday tried to leave at the same time, adding to the gridlock.
The worst of the conditions may be yet to come, as officials expect freezing rain and sleet to hit the area as the storm moves out. That's been the story in Texas and Georgia, where ice has coated streets and cars (you can follow the broader effects of the storm in our main post from Wednesday).
In Charlotte, Raleigh, and other parts of North Carolina, commuters have been sitting in their cars for hours to make trips that often take less than 30 minutes. And in scenes like those seen in Atlanta two weeks ago, some are leaving their cars in the road, creating new challenges for other drivers and work and rescue crews.
By around 1:30 p.m. in Chapel Hill, the sky was gray and the air was clouded with snow. Many people headed for home just after lunch, says North Carolina Transportation Department spokesman Steve Abbott.
"It was like a rush hour, only instead of between 4 and 6, it was from 1 o'clock until now — and then you throw in cars that may be broken down along the road, or have slid sideways, and that's adding to it," he said.
The gridlock has come despite warnings and preparations, Abbott says.
"Just in the Raleigh area, we put down more than 114,000 gallons of salt brine," he says. "We've been warning folks for two days: This is going to be bad."
The News Observer spoke to Bob Hofstadter, who had left work in Durham at 2 p.m. but was still on the road in Raleigh — 25 miles away — at 4 p.m. as he tried to get home:
"He'd slogged down the highway, came up a blanketed South Saunders Street, and ran into a clog of cars on the hill coming into downtown Raleigh.
" 'I thought I was going to go through town, but now I'm not sure we're going anywhere,' Hofstadter said, scraping ice from the windshield wipers of his Chevy Tahoe. Up ahead, several lanes of cars wound into the white haze that had settled over downtown."
The situation led officials to postpone tonight's planned basketball game between archrivals North Carolina and Duke — a game that, earlier today, the state's governor had urged people not to try to attend.
Member station WUNC spoke to UNC-Chapel Hill student Jessica Isom, who said she had traveled 3 miles in three hours. Isom said the roads weren't prepared well enough.
"Plus the buses stopped working so that left students on campus stranded so more cars came on campus to get students, and that made the traffic worse," she said.
The station passed along this update from Ryan Ellis of the National Weather Service in Raleigh: "We expect accumulations of anywhere from 4 to 7 inches of snow here. It will transition this afternoon and has in some areas south and east of the Triangle into sleet and perhaps freezing rain."
The News Observer reports that hotels are scrambling to find space for people stranded by the storm; a mall has stayed open to give stranded drivers a place to go, even after most of its stores closed at 2 p.m.
In a situation mirrored in other coastal Southern states, much of southeast North Carolina escaped the worst of the snow — but ice and sleet have played havoc with that area's power grid.
More than 50,000 customers have lost power in that area, reports WUNC's Eric Mennel, including in Wilmington, where some streets were lined with downed tree limbs. He spoke to resident Jason Tyson, who said:
"We didn't get any snow per se. It's mostly freezing rain and ice. And the heaviness of that ice just laid on some of these old limbs or limbs that were ready to go anyway. I can see right now, there's a limb about ready to go down, laying on a power line. I think that may be the case all over the city."
The local utility, Duke Energy, has 3,300 workers trying to help, Mennel reports. But, he adds, "The company is telling customers to plan for lengthy outages."