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N. Carolina Capital Disabled by Inch of Snow

Raleigh Residents Clog Roads Before Salt Trucks Can Deal With Surprise Storm

By Margaret Lillard
Associated Press
Friday, January 21, 2005; Page A06

RALEIGH, N.C., Jan. 20 -- An inch of snow crippled North Carolina's capital -- and prompted plenty of finger-pointing -- Thursday as the city thawed from the surprise storm that caused epic gridlock and left 3,000 students stranded overnight.

While a TV weatherman hung his head in shame before a local audience, calling his forecast of a mere dusting "embarrassing," the mayor vented at meteorologists for leaving Raleigh unprepared for Wednesday's freeze-fest.

"A forecast that had given a better indication of the likely problem would have been very helpful," Mayor Charles Meeker said Thursday, as temperatures and tempers rose.

Residents, particularly those from other parts of the country, could not believe that the city was brought to its knees by an inch of snow.

"I just don't think they're equipped to handle it," Lori Jamieson said.

Where she's from in Pennsylvania, "this just doesn't happen," she said. "If they have a forecast anything is coming, they'd have those trucks sitting on the road somewhere, ready to go."

That was not the case Wednesday. When the dry snow hit already frigid streets at midday, it turned to ice just as schools and businesses scrambled to close early. That sent thousands of cars onto the roads before road crews and salt trucks could treat them.

Police handled more than 1,000 accidents, none fatal, and some people were caught in traffic jams that left them on the roads for more than eight hours. Buses were unable to take children home from school, stranding nearly 3,000 in their classrooms with their teachers overnight. Some motorists who could not get home bunked with others in office buildings and even grocery stores.

"This is embarrassing for my profession," a contrite WRAL-TV chief meteorologist Greg Fishel told viewers during the height of the chaos. "In the 24 years I've lived here, I have never encountered the traffic situation I saw today."

But none of the television meteorologists made the right call, evoking memories of December 2002, when they failed to predict an ice storm that plunged much of the Carolinas into darkness for more than a week.

Meeker said city workers could have been ready, he said -- if forecasts had given a hint that icy roads could be a problem.

Absent guidance to the contrary, people responded to the foul weather by shutting down early and going home. Had city officials known that the roads were icing over, Meeker said, they would have advised people to stay at work and school late, so that crews could put salt on the streets before they filled with traffic.

It was not until late Wednesday that Gov. Mike Easley (D) declared a state of emergency, allowing him to open two state government buildings in downtown Raleigh as shelters to accommodate drivers. He asked residents to stay home Thursday morning so crews could clear the roads.

The weather cooperated, warming into the low 40s and drying most roads by midafternoon.

As Wednesday's problems melted away, though, more snow was on the way. And this time, forecasters were not downplaying the threat.

The first round was forecast to fall between late Thursday and early Friday.

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