RALEIGH, N.C. – Winter weather crippled traffic from Ohio to North Carolina on Friday, as snow and ice contributed to numerous road accidents and led to the stranding of 3,000 students in Raleigh (search), N.C., classrooms overnight.
Ohio residents braced for an expected 5 to 8 inches of snow forecast to fall through Saturday, as parts of the state continued to cope with the aftermath of storms that knocked out power to thousands of homes and whose snowmelt flooded parts of the southeast.
In Raleigh, a mere inch of snow was all it took to cripple North Carolina's capital and prompt plenty of finger-pointing as the city thawed from the surprise storm that caused gridlock and stranded the schoolchildren.
While a TV weatherman hung his head in shame — telling viewers his forecast of a mere dusting was "embarrassing" — the mayor vented at meteorologists for leaving Raleigh unprepared for Wednesday's storm.
"A forecast that had given a better indication of the likely problem would have been very helpful," Mayor Charles Meeker (search) said.
Residents — particularly those who have lived in other parts of the country — couldn't believe the city was brought to its knees by just an inch of snow.
"I just don't think they're equipped to handle it," said Lori Jamieson, who's from Pennsylvania.
When the dry snow hit already-frigid streets at midday, it turned to ice as schools and businesses scrambled to close early. That sent thousands of cars onto the roads before salt trucks could treat the pavement.
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 the students 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 he was not alone. None of the television meteorologists made the right call, evoking memories of December 2002, when they failed to predict the severity of an ice storm that plunged much of the Carolinas into darkness for more than a week.
Meeker said city workers could have been ready if forecasts had given a hint that icy roads could be a problem.
People responded to the foul weather as they usually do in this region, shutting down early and going home. Had the city known that the roads were icing over, Meeker said, it would have advised people to stay at work and school late, so crews could put salt on the streets before they filled with traffic.
It wasn't until late Wednesday that Gov. Mike Easley (search) 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 Department of Transportation (search) crews could clear the roads.
The weather cooperated, warming into the low 40s and drying the moisture from most roads by midafternoon.
Even as Wednesday's problems melted away, though, more snow was on the way. And this time, forecasters were making sure not to downplay the threat.
The first round was forecast to fall between late Thursday and early Friday. "It'll be over by morning and we'll have time to assess things before the morning commute," said National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Moneypenny.
The weekend, however, looked grim, with sleet and snow predicted to fall in freezing temperatures Saturday and into Sunday.
Meeker acknowledged the city should have had a plan for handling the ice.
"I think everybody worked extremely hard to get through the situation. But I do think if we'd had a good policy in place and communicated it to the public, we could have lessened the disruption."