By David Zucchino and Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times
DURHAM, N.C. — Much of the South found itself in the nastiness of a winter storm Wednesday, with needle-like freezing rain, growing piles of snow and biting temperatures that turned roads into a slippery mess, cut off power to hundreds of thousands of people and grounded thousands of flights.
The storm, which spread from Texas to the Carolinas, was described in near-apocalyptic terms by the National Weather Service, which labeled the weather “an event of historical proportions.” The service went on to use terms such as “catastrophic,” “crippling” and “paralyzing” in describing the potential hazards.
By afternoon, much of the Deep South was caked in a dangerous armor of glistening ice and snow. At least nine highway deaths were reported and more than 350,000 customers were without electricity in Georgia, South Carolina and Louisiana — and the outages were expected to grow. Some customers could be in the dark for days despite feverish efforts to bring the region’s power back on line.
In North Carolina, sections of five major interstate highways were gridlocked and motorists were abandoning their cars — scenes that appeared to repeat the traffic debacle that gripped Atlanta two weeks ago when thousands of vehicles were left on snow-slick roads.
As the situation worsened into the evening, officials warned drivers to stay with their cars or the vehicles would be towed at their expense. Authorities said abandoned vehicles were blocking snow plows and emergency crews, and people trying to walk home were at risk of being hit by cars sliding off icy roads.
Traffic cameras showed vehicles backed up for miles, with cars stacked on roadsides and people stomping through the snow. The Twitter feed for the state transportation department was crammed with warnings of gridlock from Interstate 26 in the west to Interstates 95, 85, 40 and 77 in central and eastern North Carolina.
Schools and many businesses were closed, but commuters leaving work at midday to beat the storm clogged roads leading out of Charlotte and Raleigh. The weather paralyzed major urban areas in Charlotte, the Triangle area of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, and the Triad area of Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory had warned his fellow Tar Heels to stay at home. “Don’t put your stupid hat on” and challenge icy highways, the Republican said Tuesday night. He anticipated “one of the toughest storms we’re going to see in our history.”
Up to 10 inches of snow was predicted for the western mountains of North Carolina, 7 inches for Charlotte and 2 to 4 inches for Raleigh.
The North Carolina State Highway Patrol was inundated by calls for help from motorists trapped on jammed highways, marooned after cars slid into ditches or got stuck on the roadside after rear-end collisions.
“We have bumper-to-bumper traffic in some places and gridlock in others,” 1st Sgt. Jeff Gordon of the highway patrol said.