- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - As Mike Hammond pushed his grocery cart filled with food to his car, he looked at the sky.

Gray clouds, but no snow - at least not yet. But like so many in North Carolina - and the Deep South - he was braced for the worst.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” Hammond, 37, of Charlotte, said Tuesday. “But I’m making sure I have the staples - and batteries for my flashlights in case something happens to the power. I want to be prepared.”

State officials were also doing what they could to get ready, marshalling resources and stockpiling supplies for what could be a slow thaw. Officials compared the extent of preparations to what the state more typically does to prepare for a hurricane.

Gov. Pat McCrory huddled with his emergency management team in the high-tech bunker at the state’s new Joint Force Headquarters in Raleigh. He preemptively signed a State of Emergency declaration, the first step in seeking federal funds for providing emergency services, clearing debris and repairing any damage to roads and bridges.

“Our goal is to be over prepared and hope this storm system is underwhelming,” McCrory said.

Snow, sleet and freezing rain are expected across much of North Carolina. The National Weather Service said the frozen precipitation began Tuesday afternoon and will continue into Wednesday.

A winter storm warning was in effect in central and eastern North Carolina.

Up to 5 inches of snow was expected in the central part of the state. Up to a foot of snow was possible around Elizabeth City, with up to 10 inches expected in the Greenville area, as well as the northern Outer Banks. From 4 to 8 inches is possible in other parts of eastern North Carolina.

Only 1 to 3 inches of snow was expected in most of the mountains in the western part of the state, including Charlotte.

It was part of a winter storm system moving through the South. Popular warm-weather tourist destinations - including Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans - expected ice and snow over the next two days, rare occurrences in places that seldom even see prolonged sub-freezing temperatures.

School systems across much of North Carolina adjourned early Tuesday afternoon, hoping to get children home before the storm hit. Near the mountain town of Fletcher, a school bus slid off an icy road and turned on its side, but there were no serious injuries.

Police agencies across the state were scrambling to keep up with traffic accidents.

By late Tuesday afternoon, adverse road and weather conditions contributed to more than two dozen traffic accidents in the Greensboro area alone.

The weather also caused delays at airports. At the Fayetteville Regional Airport, U.S. Airways, Delta and United airlines cancelled flights Tuesday.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper warned businesses and consumers about the state’s price gouging law.

“It’s wrong to use a crisis as an excuse to make an unfair buck,” he said. “Most businesses pull together to help their community when bad weather hits, but if someone is using this storm to try to rip you off, we want to know about it.”

Utility companies were waiting to respond to outages.

“The state’s electric cooperatives are carefully monitoring this winter weather system and are prepared for possible power outages,” said Jane Pritchard, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Association of Electric Cooperatives, which provides energy to 2.5 million people.

In anticipation of the storm, the National Park Service closed facilities on Ocracoke, Hatteras Island and Bodie Island, as well as the Wright Brothers National Memorial and Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.

All will probably remain closed Wednesday - or longer - until the storm’s impact can be assessed and conditions are safe for visitor travel, the National Park Service said.

At Fort Bragg, civilian employees were being released early Tuesday, and the North Carolina Zoo was closing because of the weather.

Meanwhile, nearly 500 road crews throughout the state were busy, spreading brine on highways to keep them from freezing.

State Transportation Secretary Tony Tata said 54 trucks and crews equipped with plows were being moved from the mountains to the eastern half of the state, where they will be on standby. Most state ferry routes shut down as swells rose and the Outer Banks braced for what forecasters warned could be up to a foot of snow.

In Charlotte, residents stocked up on fuel and groceries.

Outside a Walmart, Wendy Munn was concerned about potentially icy conditions. Growing up in rural western Pennsylvania, she’s used to driving in snow. But now at the first sign of snow, the 28-year-old mother of two stays indoors.

“You don’t want to be driving. People aren’t used to driving in snow down here so it gets a little dangerous,” she said.

And that worries public officials.

Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee urged people to “stay off the roads.”

Gov. McCrory advised people to head home and stay there.

“Now is not the time to take any unnecessary risks or make any unnecessary trips,” McCrory said.


Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker reported from Raleigh. Follow him at Twitter.com/mbieseck

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