For many, the snow on Christmas Day was a welcomed miracle. But enough is enough. This week, the massive, slow moving storm system, which shut down metropolitan areas all over the southeast, dumped from six inches to over a foot of snow in the western North Carolina region. The snow and icy conditions shut down businesses, public schools and universities. Major roads were dangerous; secondary roads, treacherous; and back roads, nearly impassable.
But it could have been worse. According to Fred Alexander of Duke Energy, there were only 30 to 40 widely scattered power outages reported in Macon County. This was due to the extremely dry conditions after the Sunday night snowfall that kept tree limbs from icing up. “We really dodged a bullet on this one,” Alexander said.
Still, the state and the region had their hands full. The day of the storm, the state Highway Patrol responded to some 2,570 calls statewide, 420 of which occurred between 12 a.m. and 8 a.m. Thankfully, there were no fatalities or serious injuries reported. North Carolina National Guardsmen were deployed in response to the storm to assist state agencies as they battled the weather. Humvee's of guardsmen were deployed to various locations to assist state crews in snow removal. Several more teams were mobilized to assist Highway Patrol as they worked accidents and assisted stranded motorists.
Early Tuesday morning, the North Carolina Department of Crime Control and Prevention's Emergency Management Office sent out a warning of potential hazards to drivers.
"The best advice this morning is stay home if you can,” said Emergency Management Director Doug Hoell. "Anyone who is thinking of driving today should first check the road conditions on their route before heading out.”
Department of Transportation Road crews worked long hours through the storm, and have continued working through the week “using salt-brine sprays on some northern counties, while scraping and salting roads throughout western North Carolina. Crews worked 12-hour shifts around the clock in some areas to help open roads across the state, and with more snow in the forecast, they may continue working through the week. Snow removal,however, is costly - and will likely add to the budget shortfalls already brought on by the nationwide recession.
In this fiscal year (July 1, 2010, to June 31, 2011) the NCDOT has already spent $26.3 million of its budgeted 30 million dollars for snow removal (figures updated as of January 7.) The latest winter storm almost certainly exceeded that budget, according to Peder Zane, a public relations spokesperson for NCDOT said. After those funds are depleted, the state will dip into the general maintenance funds to cover the overages up to 10 million dollars statewide. After that the burden of snow removal will be on the regional districts "general maintenance" budgets. Last year, Zane estimated that the state spent some $65 million on snow removal. If the weather continues to be precipitous, North Carolina will likely again exceed their budgeted “statewide” snow removal costs for the year, which means the storms may still be causing problems long after the snow has melted away.
Area schools were also affected by the early January storm which will result in more make-up days and Saturday classes for some area students. Southwestem Community College had to delay the opening of several classes originally scheduled to begin Monday, Jan 9. The college was closed Monday through Wednesday, and announced a delayed schedule for Thursday classes which would not begin until 10 am.
Western Carolina University cancelled courses across their campuses, from Sylva to Asheville, on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday evening classes were cancelled, but day classes were going ahead without a delay. As of press time there was no word of Thursday classes.
Macon County Public Schools were also closed Monday through Wednesday ofthis week, nor was there was any indication at press time as to whether or not they would be open the rest of the week. Parents who have school aged children and college students are advised to continue to check their school's websites for up-to-date information about school delays and closings.
The NCDOT also wants to remind motorists to drive safely in winter conditions. Those braving the elements can find accurate, up-to-date weather information on the the toll-free travel information line, which can be accessed by dialing 511. Also, if you are out and encounter icy conditions, modifying how you drive can help to minimize your risk of having an accident. The Emergency Management Department recommends taking the following precautions:
• Reduce your speed. Driving at the regular speed limit will reduce your ability to control the car if you begin to slide. Leave plenty of room between you and other vehicles.
• Bridges and overpasses accumulate ice first. Approach them with extreme caution and do not apply your brakes while on the bridge. If you do begin to slide, take your foot off of the gas and turn the steering wheel IN THE DIRECTION OF THE SLIDE. Do NOT apply the brakes, as that will cause further loss of control of the car.
NCDOT Mobile gives drivers current conditions
With winter storms threatening North Carolina, drivers need to know before they go what kind of conditions they will face on the roads. The N.C. Department of Transportation is launching a new tool called NCDOT Mobile that provides current conditions in real time straight from the cell phone.
“People expect instant information, and NCDOT Mobile gives it to them,” NCDOT Communications Director Greer Beaty, said. “Now you don’t need a computer to get road closure or traffic updates before you get behind the wheel.”
NCDOT Mobile is a phone-friendly version of the NCDOT website. To access it, type “m.ncdot.gov” into the browser on your smartphone. Then, bookmark it and save it to your phone’s home screen for future reference.
Since it is web-based, NCDOT Mobile is designed to be compatible on a variety of smartphones, including the iPhone, Android and some newer Blackberry phones.
Key features include:
• Real-time traffic information that works with Google Maps and the phone’s built-in GPS and wireless location services;
• Searchable DMV office locations that also work with your phone’s mapping capabilities;
• Searchable Rest Area locations;
• Ferry and Amtrak schedule information;
• NCDOT Twitter messages; and
• NCDOT News.