Snow returns in full to Clayton

sgilman@newsobserver.comFebruary 14, 2014 

When drivers began sliding off roads and abandoning their cars during Wednesday’s snowstorm, Clayton emergency responders were prepared to help.

“We were out at the areas where we knew we had problems,” Police Chief Wayne Bridges said. “It was a preemptive strike.”

The snowstorm a month earlier had given police and firefighters an idea where problems would arise, and they rushed to those areas when snow began falling around noon on Wednesday.

Police and firefighters helped drivers get their cars out of snowbanks, brought them to the warming center at Clayton High School and even gave them rides where they needed to go.

By driving to the problem areas identified in January, emergency responders found about 100 cars either stuck in the snow or abandoned, Bridges said.

But despite what looked like disastrous conditions, no one was injured in the accidents. Bridges said the town had been “very fortunate” for the lack of injuries.

On Wednesday, police received only about 15 snow-related calls for help. “Fifteen calls, that’s not bad,” Bridges said.

By Tuesday evening, Clayton roads were mostly clear and dry from the light snow that afternoon, but temperatures dropped well below freezing Tuesday night, freezing whatever water remained. Road crews resumed work Wednesday morning, spreading sand and plowing major roads where snow remained.

Snow began falling again around noon Wednesday. In Clayton, people trying to get home or retrieve children from daycare slowed traffic to a grind by about 1:30 p.m.

“It was gridlock in Clayton,” said public information officer Stacy Beard.

The gridlock worsened when the snow turned to sleet in midafternoon. Drivers had difficulty gaining traction on the increasingly slippery roads, and many abandoned their vehicles to walk and find help.

Some of the more troublesome areas in Clayton were O’Neil Street, right before and after joining Covered Bridge Road; N.C. 42 East; Shotwell Road between Covered Bridge Road and Amelia Church Road; and Lombard Street.

“Lombard has the slant going down toward the overpass, and people were just pulling their cars off,” Beard said. “They couldn’t get up the hill.”

Clayton residents Kathy Kenneke and Duane Duncan experienced the gridlock in Wake County on Wednesday when they left their home to go to Gander Mountain sporting goods in Morrisville. They arrived in Morrisville with Duncan’s twins, Jesse and Ginger, just in time for the store to close.

“Then it took us four hours to get home,” Kenneke said.

To make a long day end in fun, Kenneke and Duncan took the twins sledding in downtown Clayton.

Other residents, like Lamar Wilkins, just stayed home. The business owner said he didn’t go to work Wednesday; instead, he spent the day “just kind of enjoying the weather that we never get.”

By about 4:30 p.m., the gridlock was gone. Meanwhile, Johnston County emergency responders had collaborated with Clayton’s police and fire departments to set up a temporary warming center at Clayton High School. It was open for about three hours in the afternoon, offering a place for people to go if their cars got stuck in the snow.

“It was just a temporary place to get warm if they were waiting for a ride or something,” Beard said.

Clayton opened an emergency operations center at its fire station on Roberston Street, where the public works staff, firefighters, police officers and electric workers gathered to collaborate on storm response. The center had maps of Clayton with problematic roads highlighted, emergency call staff and a list of locals who would be medically at risk if they lost power.

“It’s easier to manage when we have everyone in one room,” police officer Jason Dean said.

The emergency operations staff planned to stay all night, but rain hit Clayton around 9 p.m. and began melting the snow. The freezing rain did not thicken enough to worry electric systems director Dale Medlin.

“A quarter of an inch of ice or more kind of creates havoc. At this time, we’re fine,” he said Wednesday night. “(Power lines) are not not designed to take that kind of weight,” he explained.

Medlin said he had eight men waiting at the town’s operation center in case anyone’s power went out. He had five men on standby in case it got even worse. But he said he wasn’t worried, in part because the storm was not too bad and in part because workers had been trimming branches away from power lines all year long.

“That’s why we don’t have any problems,” he said.

The town’s snowplow drivers worked all night long to remove snow packed down by traffic earlier in the day. Isaac Poelman, who doesn’t drink coffee, stocked his cab with two cans of Mountain Dew to help him stay awake through his shift.

“If I’m going to be working all night, I got to drink something other than water or tea,” he said.

Poelman’s route takes him down Shotwell Road, Amelia Church Road, a portion of N.C. 42 and Guy Road. When traffic packs snow into an icy layer, snowplow drivers have to make many rounds to clear the road all the way to the asphalt. He goes around and around until it’s done.

“I’ll stay on the main roads until I’ve gotten as much as I think I’m going to get, and then I go back and get the subdivisions,” Poelman said, taking a swig of his Mountain Dew.

Clayton’s three snowplows, one pickup truck and several backhoes tackled the town’s roughly 70 miles of roads. The night crew worked the roads until about 7 a.m., and a day crew took over after that.

All Clayton offices, including Hocutt-Ellington Memorial Library, the Clayton Center and the Clayton Community Center, closed early Tuesday and Wednesday and were closed all day Thursday. Johnston County schools closed Wednesday and remained closed on Thursday and Friday.

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