Winter weather leads to power outages, accidents in Rowan

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Mark Wineka

Salisbury Post

Rowan County’s brush with snow, sleet and freezing rain Thursday morning led to accidents, power outages and busy road crews, but schools took a chance and followed a normal day’s schedule.

A delay or cancellation of Rowan-Salisbury Schools loomed as a possibility today, depending on whether water-soaked roads froze over and became icy in the morning. The overnight temperature was expected to dip to about 30 degrees, but should be above freezing by 9 a.m., said Patrick Moore, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Greer, S.C.

Jim Christy, assistant superintendent for operations, said he and others would be driving the roads and making contacts with Department of Transportation crews to determine the conditions.

Christy expected a decision by 5:15 a.m. at the latest.

Although schools surprised many parents and students by following a normal schedule during the day Thursday, officials canceled all evening activities, including sports.

Kannapolis City Schools also operated normally Thursday and were already scheduled to be out of session today and Monday. Rowan schools are also out Monday for a teacher workday.

Students should enjoy the off day today with an expected high around 50 degrees before the high temperature drops back to the mid-40s on Saturday.

Moore, the meteorologist, said another weather system is expected to move in sometime Sunday bringing with it the possibility of more freezing rain that could affect driving conditions Monday morning.

“It really depends on timing and that is by no means certain, when it’s going to start and when it’s going to stop,” he said.

A Thursday morning accident in which a car struck a utility pole closed Majolica Road and knocked out power for several hundred residents and a few businesses for about five hours.

Employees at Old Carolina Brick at 475 Majolica Road, stayed on site and waited for the power to be restored. It finally came back about 1 p.m., according to Plant Manager Brian Cleveland.

Just after noon Thursday, Duke Energy was reporting 398 power outages in North and South Carolina and, of those, 320 represented Rowan County customers.

By 4:15 p.m., Duke had restored power to all Rowan customers, and only 52 locations in its Carolinas service area had outages.

District Sgt. B.E. Hower of the N.C. Highway Patrol said vehicles began having trouble with slick roads in Rowan County about 7 a.m. Thursday.

Between 7 and 8 a.m., troopers responded to four wrecks; between 8 and 9 a.m., 12 wrecks. But Hower said some of those reports were people calling in on cell phones after they saw cars spin off the highway. By the time a trooper arrived, the drivers had been able to get the cars back onto the road and drive off.

“We have not be inundated,” Hower said. He added that he knew of no problems for school buses.

Counties north of Rowan had more difficulties with the winter weather, Hower said. Several of the accidents in Rowan County occurred on Interstate 85. The Majolica Road accident, which happened near the youth soccer fields, also was blamed on a slick road.

Trooper C.D. Hall of the N.C. Highway Patrol said Mandy Amy Graham was driving too fast for the icy conditions on Majolica Road when she wrecked near Sherrills Ford Road around 8 a.m. Thursday.

Graham, of 150 Neita Drive, lost control of her car and ran off the right side of the road, hitting a Duke Energy utility pole that fell across Majolica Road, shutting down traffic for four hours and knocking out power.

Graham and her two children, one 3 years old and one nearly 2, were all properly restrained in the car and were treated and released for minor injuries at Rowan Regional Medical Center, Hall said.

Hall cited Graham, who he estimated was driving 35 mph at impact, for exceeding safe speed.

“Anytime there’s snow or ice or slush on roadways, just take extra precautions,” Hall advised.

Hower said he drove on Rowan roads Thursday morning and all seemed passable, even if they had visible slush and ice.

If drivers follow three basic rules when driving in snow or icy conditions, Hower said, they will weather the storm:

* Increase your following distance.

* Don’t stab on your brakes.

* Travel slower than the posted speed limit.

When some parents saw the weather conditions Thursday morning, they decided to keep their children home. Others, such as Kathleen Kiever, started out for school with their children but turned around.

“A two-hour delay would have been a better thing to do,” Kiever said.

Kiever said her car almost hit another vehicle while she was driving on U.S. 52 toward Rockwell Elementary. She also saw two cars in a ditch and an accident ahead of her before she turned around and went home.

When she tried to stop, her car would slide, Kiever said.

“I decided trying to take my kids to school was not safe enough,” she said. “… It’s not the schools’ fault. The superintendent should have made a better call.”

Kiever eventually took her three children to school at 10:30 a.m.

Christy said the school system has to make its decision about cancellation, a delay or having school as scheduled by 5:15 a.m. at the latest. By then, some of the bus drivers with the longer routes in the county already have left their homes.

On Thursday, Christy began checking radar pictures about 3:50 a.m., and it appeared as though the weather front was shifting south and east away from Rowan.

He checked with the National Weather Service in Greer, S.C., and was told to expect freezing rain into the late morning.

At 5:15 a.m., local weather reports were downplaying the impact the weather would have in Rowan, Christy said, and school officials decided to proceed with school.

School officials in Iredell and Cabarrus counties made the same decision.

Christy had second thoughts about 6:50 a.m. when a strong band of precipitation materialized over Rowan, from Mount Ulla to Rockwell and north along I-85.

Christy acknowledged that Rowan received more of the icy weather than he had anticipated, but schools reported no problems with buses, and he wasn’t aware of any students having trouble getting to school.

“We made the best decision with the information we had at the time,” Christy said.

For high schools in Rowan, Thursday represented the first day of final exams. School officials already had plans for how the exam schedule would be adjusted if the bad weather caused a delay, Christy said.

Chuck White, county maintenance engineer for the DOT, said he expected “a fog-type mist” Thursday night that could contribute to icy roads this morning. He reported that Rowan’s roads were in good shape as of early Thursday afternoon.

White credited the DOT’s treatment of I-85 and other primary roads with brine for keeping down any accumulation of snow or ice. As the snow and ice fell Thursday morning, DOT crews put salt and sand on bridges and “bare-pavement routes” — roads that hadn’t been pre-treated Wednesday.

Both White and Steve Weatherford, head of Salisbury’s street division, noted weather forecasts that call for the possibility of more winter weather Sunday night.

White asked for motorists’ patience in case his crews are on the primary roads again this weekend putting down the brine pre-treatment.

Weatherford’s street crews responded as usual to Thursday morning’s weather, making sure bridges and other elevated surfaces were addressed first with salt and sand. Except for a brief period between 7 and 7:30 a.m., Weatherford said city streets weren’t too bad.

City buses and garbage trucks ran their normal schedules and routes.

“This was a good little practice to keep the guys in tune and get me out of bed a little earlier,” Weatherford said.

Weatherford expressed some concern for “black ice” this morning — patches of ice not visible to drivers.

In Kannapolis, public works crews also started the day at 5 a.m.

They checked snow and ice removal equipment earlier in the week in anticipation of the winter storm and another forecast for Sunday.

Kannapolis has five plows and prioritizes by clearing major roads and intersections first, then secondary streets. High priority roads include Main Street, Ridge Avenue and Dale Earnhardt Boulevard.

City officials advised citizens to stay off the roads in the event of freezing rain, sleet and snow.

A dispatcher at the Kannapolis Police Department said the day was no different from other days in terms of accidents. There were only a few wrecks throughout the city, but no more than any other day.

In a release from the city, the Kannapolis Fire Department reminded citizens that in case of a loss of power, have water, flashlights with fresh batteries and an AM/FM radio with fresh batteries on hand.

Keep grills outdoors to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, and heaters of any kind should be ventilated and kept away from flammable objects.

The department also reminded citizens to extinguish fires and candles and other heat sources when they leave their homes and if they would be out of those rooms for an extended period of time.

It also asked citizens to check on their neighbors when possible.

Scott Jenkins and Joanie Morris contributed to this article. Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or