CHARLOTTE — Charlotte and the rest of North Carolina remained in a virtual shutdown Thursday morning, with the worst winter storm in a decade bringing more snow and freezing rain to the region until midday.
Schools and government offices are closed, and authorities say road conditions remain treacherous. Road crews worked during the night to open travel lanes on major thoroughfares, but forecasters say more sleet and snow will fall across the region Thursday.
Charlotte city spokeswoman Kimberly McMillan said city and county officials are urging people to stay off the roads until conditions improve. The National Guard had to help free a stranded Medic ambulance Thursday morning in southwest Charlotte.
The area remains under a winter storm warning, with an additional 1 to 3 inches of snow and sleet forecast for the Charlotte area Thursday morning. The precipitation is expected to end by early afternoon as the storm system moves up the East Coast, dumping heavy snow on Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.
Light freezing drizzle changed to sleet in Charlotte shortly before 7:30 a.m. Meanwhile, heavy snow with thunder was reported in York and Gaston counties.
The good news in the immediate Charlotte area is that overnight precipitation, which was mostly freezing drizzle, was light. As a result, Duke Energy and other utility companies are reporting few power outages in Mecklenburg and nearby counties Thursday morning. But officials in South Carolina reported nearly 140,000 customers without electricity at daybreak Thursday. Tens of thousands of customers in southeastern North Carolina also are without power.
Several hundred people were stranded overnight at Charlotte Douglas International Airport due to canceled flights. US Airways canceled all outbound and inbound flights before 10 a.m. Thursday. And Amtrak announced that all rail service in the Carolinas is canceled Thursday.
Charlotte Area Transit System buses will begin limited service starting at 10:30 a.m. Thursday. Riders should look for updates on the CATS website and be prepared for weather-related delays. Light rail service will start at 5:30 a.m.
The City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County offices, which initially were planned to open at noon, will be closed Thursday instead.
Police in Charlotte responded to 209 traffic wrecks Wednesday, with 15 injuries. Snow brought Independence Boulevard to a midafternoon standstill. The snow, which began in Charlotte around mid-morning, brought between 4.5 and 6 inches to Mecklenburg County. The National Weather Service said most counties in the area reported between 5 and 7 inches of snow.
The city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County declared a state of emergency late Wednesday afternoon, after declarations by the governors of North and South Carolina. About 100 National Guard troops were sent to Charlotte for possible support of local authorities.
This will be a tough 48 hours, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said in a Wednesday news conference.
South and southeast of Charlotte, fears of a crippling ice storm materialized, with more than 230,000 power outages reported by late afternoon across South Carolina. An additional 20,000 customers in North Carolina were without power at points on Wednesday.
The worst traffic problems were on Independence Boulevard. Police say a tractor-trailer jackknifed midafternoon near the top of a hill near Hawthorne Lane on the outbound side.
Vehicles behind the truck stopped, then were unable to climb the incline on a snow-packed road. Authorities stopped all cars from getting onto the freeway for a stretch of about a mile.
The Charlotte Department of Transportation planned to plow high-priority streets overnight, including major and minor thoroughfares, hospital entrances and areas indicated by police, firefighters and paramedics.
Charlotte residents offered their homes through Facebook posts to stranded motorists, a situation similar to that in Atlanta several weeks ago.
The storm caused problems across the region. Near UNC Charlotte, the roof on the fellowship hall of University Hills Baptist Church collapsed under the weight of heavy snow Wednesday afternoon, and it took 26 firefighters to stabilize itNobody was in the building at the time, church officials said.
In Monroe, dozens of motorists got stranded on part of northbound U.S. 601 because their cars couldnt climb the hill. And in Mooresville, officials closed a portion of Timber Road.
Cars are sliding on hills, said town spokeswoman Kim Sellers.
Snow moved into the immediate Charlotte area from the south between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. By mid-afternoon, snow was falling as far north as the Interstate 40 corridor. Sleet began mixing with the snow in Lancaster and York counties early Wednesday afternoon and in the Charlotte area a short time later.
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.
Wednesdays snow caused headaches for motorists across the region, but the bigger fear among many officials was the freezing rain. Experts say a quarter-inch can cause widespread power outages.
Duke Energy said it has 3,400 workers, including 500 from the Midwest and Florida, ready to restore power in the Carolinas.
In areas where we have freezing rain and heavy, wet snow, you should expect outages, said Jeff Corbett, Duke senior vice president.
More than half of Charlotte Douglas International Airports daily flights were canceled Wednesday, and airline officials warned that disruptions would continue Thursday. Amtrak halted train service Wednesday afternoon between Charlotte and Raleigh.
Many uptown Charlotte hotels were sold out by early Wednesday afternoon.
A lot of people are extending their stays because their flights got canceled, said Will Potts, a front desk agent at the Hilton Garden Inn.
A warming station that was opened Tuesday afternoon at 618 N. College St. in uptown will remain open until at least noon Thursday, said Jennifer Franklin of the American Red Cross. Nearly 150 were there late Wednesday.
In Gaston County, Salvation Army Capt. Mark Hunter said the overflow shelter there had a capacity of 45. Angela Dreher, executive of As One Ministries in Gastonia, said the nonprofit day shelter would keep its doors open for about 24 people overnight.
We loaded everybody with coats, toboggans and gloves, Dreher said. But a lot just had tennis shoes.
It wasnt a crisis for everyone. In Cramerton, Sammy and Helen Oxendine, both in their 60s, took a stroll around their neighborhood during the heavy snow.
We love snow, said Sammy Oxendine, 69, retired pastor of Cramertons Life Church.
The couple talked about a 2005 trip they made with their children to Sugar Mountain for snow tubing.
Wed go tubing with them today if we could get to them, Oxendine said.