Tuesday, December 4, 2012

10 years ago ... coated in ice

Ten years ago today, the Charlotte region awoke to the sounds of cracks and crashes.

It was a symphony of tree limbs and trees crashing onto roofs, cars and the ice-covered ground, in the wake of the worst ice storm in decades.

The ice storm of Dec. 4-5, 2002, left millions of Carolinas residents without power, some of them for many days in winter cold. It caused at least three deaths, changed the region's tree scape permanently in places, and served as a reminder that ice -- not snow -- is the big winter danger in the region.

A cold front ushered in arctic air a few days before the storm, bringing unseasonably cold temperatures into the Carolinas. Then a low pressure system formed over the lower Mississippi Valley and moved eastward.

The area from York County northeast to Raleigh was locked in a cold air wedge. Chilly air was funneled into the Piedmont from a high pressure system parked over New England. Precipitation from the low pressure system moved into that pocket of cold air.

Farther to the north, in Virginia, the temperatures in the atmosphere -- from higher levels to the ground -- were below freezing. So the precipitation fell as all snow, dumping 1 to 2 feet along the Interstate 81 corridor.

But in the Piedmont, a pocket of above-freezing temperatures a short distance above the ground melted the snow as it fell, turning it to rain. Temperatures at the surface were below freezing, however. So when the rain hit the ground, it froze.

Freezing rain is not uncommon in the Piedmont, but the amount of rain that fell in the December 2002 storm was heavy enough to cause buildups of 1 inch of ice in many places.  Meteorologists say that accumulations of a half-inch or more are enough to cause trouble.

The December 2002 storm caused plenty of trouble.

The storm broke a record for Duke Energy power outages in the Carolinas -- 1.375 million customers left without electricity. Other companies across the Piedmont were similarly hit.

In comparison, about 700,000 outages were reported in a December 2005 ice storm that hit the western Carolinas and northeast Georgia. Hurricane Hugo caused 696,000 power outages.

Across the Charlotte region on the morning of Dec. 5, 2002, trees and tree limbs fell.

Road conditions weren't bad.  For the most part, the streets were wet. But power was out almost everywhere.

A number of people made the mistake of trying to heat their homes with charcoal grills. More than 250 carbon monoxide cases were reported across the region on the first day of the storm.

Don McSween, Charlotte's city arborist, said 30 percent of the oak trees were damaged.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police reported burglaries increased 54 percent during the five days after the storm, as crooks took advantage of homes where residents had left, seeking shelter in hotels or with friends fortunate enough to have electricity and heat.

Duke Energy paid $87 million to repair the damage, including $56.5 million to pay for outside labor -- repair crews who came from across the eastern United States to help restore power.

The Rev. Brad Busiek, pastor at Newell Presbyterian Church, had arrived from Texas a few months before the ice storm. On the Sunday after the storm (Dec. 8), Busiek began his homily with a variation of a familiar poem: "Twas the ice before Christmas, when all through the house, everyone was shivering, especially my spouse."

At St. John Neumann Catholic Church in east Charlotte on that Sunday morning, there was a moment that almost seemed miraculous. In the middle of Mass, being celebrated in candlelight, the power came back on.

What would be different if such a storm hit today?

Duke Energy, which received generally good grades from the N.C. Utilities Commission in a post-storm study, has changed some its policies. One of those includes a beefed-up database for keeping track of power outages. That system has been helpful in storms since 2002, company officials say.

Duke's staff of meteorologists also earned praise, for correctly predicting that significant ice damage was likely in the Piedmont. That allowed the company to position its repair crews properly. In the wake of Hurricane Hugo, Duke Energy restored power to an average of 38,667 customers a day. After the ice storm, that daily average was 152,777.

The arrival of smart phones and other hand-held devices would create a different scenario today, especially in distributing information. In 2002, if the power was out, so were people's computers, for the most part. Today, residents could get news from their phones and other "smart" devices, without the need for electricity.

As was the case with Hurricane Hugo, we can hope that the December 2002 ice storm was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Photo: Dec. 4, 2002 in Winston-Salem.  From left, Darren Richards, Trayshawn Davis and Jasmine Carter, play in the snow. Winston-Salem Journal, David Sandler


Anonymous said...

Remember it well. Our gas water heater and gas fireplace logs saved us as our power was out for a week. It was actually quite cozy..but I do long for a repeat. I know many people suffered.

Anonymous said...

What I remember the most about that storm was people at work continually calling their home phones. If an answering machine picked up, it meant the power was back on, and you could go home. If not, it meant another night in a hotel or a friend's sofa. Good times. NOT!!!

Anonymous said...

re: above "do NOT" ( wish we could edit)

Anonymous said...

Wow! Yep I remember this! Good memory Steve!

Anonymous said...

23 years ago "Ice Ice Baby" was released by Vannila Ice

Anonymous said...

I remember it well. I dug my car out, threw my suitcase in the trunk and I was off to the airport for NYC and the Winston Cup Championship Banquet (Tony Stewart won that year). I wasn't about to miss that all because of a little ice / snow!! :)

Anonymous said...

We had just brought home our preemie that was 3 months old and she was on oxygen and heart monitors. Husband ran the generator to keep everything running and keep her (and her oxygen) warm away from the fireplace that kept the rest of the family warm. Just prayed we didn't have to hit the road for the hospital during the storm. Blessed to say everyone was fine through the storm and she just celebrated a healthy, energetic 10th birthday.

Anonymous said...

Its Al Gores fault

Anonymous said...

I was lucky in 2002; I was only out of power for 2 days.

I certainly don't want that again, although a foot of snow would be fun.

Anonymous said...

I notice that we've fallen into another roller coaster pattern similar to last year. A few days in the 50's followed by a few days in the 60's/70's. Are we gonna go through this again, weather guy!?!!?!

Anonymous said...

Thank God for global warming! I wore a t-shirt to work today!

Anonymous said...

Remember this day very well! My first birthday in my new home and the only birthday that my husband ever bought me flowers (they were on sale because the store had lost power!!) I think of that storm every year on my birthday!!

Anonymous said...

Man what a difference 10 years makes. Last night, I opened my living room window for the night. Ten years ago, I drove home in my new SUV from work in a snowstorm and watched a van I had just passed on I-85 near my exit careen out-of-control into the median.
I lost power twice; the first time for 12 hours, the 2nd time for a week. During the powerless week, I slept in the car with my 2 cats for a couple of nights and finally fled my home for warmth for me and the cats to a church family with 7 kids that had power.
At night, I ventured outside and it sounded like a war zone; cracking tree branches falling all over the place. At daybreak, my neighbor’s car had been bombarded by tree branches.
But what really blew me away was the tree damage from the crushing ice. Every Bradford Pear tree that had lined my street was destroyed. My mouth dropped straight to my feet as I starred at the damaged trees. Wow!
As I pondered the historical week, it wasn’t really so bad after all; I thought of the pioneers expanding our country westward that fought more miserable weather than our Ice Storm of 2002 and had nothing to live in except the wagons they brought along for the journey.
The new post 9-11 heroes were all the power workers that came to the Tar Heel state’s rescue to restore the power.
During my powerless time I kept a diary. I titled it “The Nightmare Awaits.” The December 2002 Ice Storm was the worst weather I had ever lived through. Two weeks later, Christmas was a welcomed distraction.

Mark in Kannapolis

Anonymous said...

The comment about checking for the answering machine hit home. We were without power for 5 days. No generator, no fireplace. We stayed at a friend's apartment with our 4.5 month old baby. The sound of the answering machine picking up was music to my ears!!

hipQuest said...

We were blessed that we never lost power so we had over a bunch of family and friends that were not so lucky. They, of course, brought their pets so we had a houseful. One of the dogs thought my 3 month old kitten was a chew toy. For someone who had no damage we had a very expensive night. 10 years later my sweet Trio sticks to me like glue. All who were here enjoyed the warmth and food; while we are forever grateful to the emergency vet by the Siskey Y for saving our Trio.

Anonymous said...

Here at Envirosafe Termite & Pest 1800 Camden Rd #1071 Charlotte NC 28203 www.pestcontrolcharlotte.net or www.charlotte-pest-control.com we were prepping our spray units to prevent freezing and making sure all our chemicals were in heated areas. This weather is much more conducive to pest control and our business.

Anonymous said...

Out of power for 8 days! On the 7th day I called Duke Power to find out when the power would be back on and they said: "Can't confirm your power is on, but I show that it is..." My reply"I can confirm that it's NOT ON!" So much fun. Power was back on the next day...

Unknown said...

I still say that storm was scarier where I lived than Hugo was.