Tuesday, December 4, 2012
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
Posted by Steve Lyttle at 2:35 PM