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Ice turns North Carolina commute into chaos

Residents of North Carolina's capital were urged to stay home Thursday so that crews could clean up after snow turned to ice, trapping motorists in epic traffic jams and stranding some 3,000 pupils overnight at schools.
Icy roads like this one forced some drivers in the Raleigh, N.C., area to stay put Wednesday while others needed hours to make their commutes.Gerry Broome / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A surprise 1-inch snow that turned to ice on frigid roads crippled North Carolina’s capital, trapping motorists in epic traffic jams and stranding some 3,000 pupils overnight at schools. The governor urged people to stay home Thursday while crews clean things up.

Highways were clogged with desperate drivers whose commutes Wednesday stretched to as long as eight hours. Law officers tallied about 1,000 accidents in the Raleigh-Durham area, but there were no reports of fatalities.

“You’d move a little bit, then you sat ... then you moved a little bit, then you sat,” said salesman Brian Baldelli, who took seven hours to go nine miles on one highway.

Gov. Mike Easley declared a state of emergency, allowing him to open two state government buildings in downtown Raleigh as shelters.

Department of Transportation crews “have been out all night scraping the roads and spreading salt, but their work is not yet complete,” Easley said early Thursday. “If people can stay home, especially this morning, I am encouraging them to do so.”

School buses suspended
Some 3,000 students spent the night at Wake County schools after bus operations were suspended and parents were unable to come get them. With Thursday classes canceled, school officials planned to have the stranded youngsters bused home during the morning.

Such a mess from a mild snowfall stunned even the forecasters.

“In the 24 years I’ve lived here, I have never encountered the traffic situation I saw today,” WRAL-TV chief meteorologist Greg Fishel said. He apologized on the air for what the station’s “embarrassing” forecast — a few flurries.

National Weather Service forecaster Brandon Locklear said very dry snow packed onto roads that were frigid after two days of below-freezing temperatures.

“You had some melting from the compression of people driving on the roads, followed rapidly by refreezing,” he said. Road crews were forced to try applying melting agents to jammed roads.

Sleeping at grocery store
Lisa Sun of Raleigh resigned herself to spending the night inside a 24-hour grocery store when police closed an ice-covered bridge, cutting her off from her home. She had already spent four hours covering a distance that usually takes half an hour and saw “a slew of accidents.”

Almost two dozen people at the grocery early Thursday, watching TV or sprawling on air mattresses.

“They have food and a restroom,” Sun said. “We’re pretty happy.”