CHARLOTTE — Light snow began falling Wednesday morning in Charlotte, heralding the arrival of a winter storm that could be the worst in a decade.
The snow is expected to intensify early in the afternoon, then mix with or change to sleet at night before changing back to snow Thursday morning. By the time it ends, 6 inches or more is expected to be on the ground. Forecasters warn that heavy sleet also is possible, and accumulations of ice are predicted for areas south and southeast of Charlotte.
National Weather Service meteorologists said they cannot rule out the possibility that damaging levels of ice could accumulate in southeastern Mecklenburg County.
Current predictions are that travel will be treacherous, Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee said. We have (the) possibility of power outages and perhaps even a crippling ice storm. We want to encourage people to stay off the roads if they do not have to be out.
Shortly before 10 a.m., snow was pushing northeast through the Charlotte area. The precipitation is expected to continue moving northward across the Carolinas over the next few hours.
A state of emergency has been issued for both Carolinas. Government offices in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County are closed, and most court sessions also are shut down Wednesday.
The predictions caused Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and other districts to close Wednesday after dismissing early Tuesday, as road crews made final preparations for the storm.
Carlee also asked businesses to consider closing for the day. Garbage pickups in Charlotte were curtailed for the day. Hundreds of flights have been canceled at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and Amtrak has halted train service Wednesday afternoon between Charlotte and Raleigh.
Besides the snow, meteorologists and emergency managers warned late Tuesday that they had not ruled out the threat of potentially crippling freezing rain, which could cause power outages.
National Weather Service meteorologists said the storm provides some difficulty in predicting the amounts of snow, sleet and freezing rain. Temperatures were in the upper 20s Wednesday morning and will be below freezing at the ground during the entire storm, forecasters said, but they expect a layer of warmer air to move into mid levels of the atmosphere later in the day. That could cause sleet and freezing rain in the region.
Because of the finicky nature of the storm, meteorologists forecasts on the amount of snow in the area have changed at several times over the last two days. The current prediction is for 7.5 inches of snow in Charlotte, with 6 inches in Matthews, 8 inches in Huntersville, and 10 inches in Mooresville.
Less snow is predicted for areas southeast of Charlotte, like Monroe and Lancaster, S.C., but those places will be trading snow for freezing rain.
The American Red Cross opened a warming center late Tuesday afternoon at 618 N. College St. and said it would remain open until at least noon Wednesday.
It is expected to be worse in South Carolina, with up to an inch of ice possible in the Columbia area. That could bring power outages for days.
The snowfall comes as the region approaches the decade anniversary of a storm that began Feb. 26, 2004, and brought 20 inches of snow to southern Mecklenburg County. That storm trapped ambulances on icy drifts and stranded drivers on highways.
In preparation for Wednesdays storm, N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory and S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley declared states of emergency, allowing authorities to mobilize any resources needed to battle the storm. The order includes a waiver on weight restrictions and work hours for truck drivers who deliver supplies, restore utilities or clear debris.