With snow continuing to fall Tuesday afternoon and bread and milk all but gone from grocery store shelves across Sampson County, residents — and public safety officials — began bracing for what could be the biggest winter event in recent years here.
Forecasters are continuing to call for snow, sleet and freezing rain Wednesday and possibly into Thursday, with snow accumulations of 3 inches or more.
The county partially activiated an Emergency Operations Center late Tuesday, and administrators starting sending non-weather response personnel home by noon, with a two-hour delay called for on Wednesday, time enough, assistant county manager Susan Holder said, to assess what, if any, changes needed to occur by mid-morning.
“We are fully aware we might have to change that should ice start to fall, but right now (Tuesday) we are planning on a delay first,” Holder said.
While no shelters had been opened Tuesday afternoon, Holder said they were ready to do whatever was necessary if weather conditions worsened or emergencies occurred. An additional ambulance, she added, had also been activated.
Clinton City Schools officials already announced a systemwide closing for Wednesday, and Sampson Community College officials were all but certain their campus would be closed as well, although a final decision on that closing wasn’t expected until after press time Tuesday.
Sampson County Schools officials, who have to assess conditions in four distinct districts, opted to close for students Tuesday, although it was an optional day for teachers and staff. No decision had been made by press time Tuesday about the county schools’ plans for Wednesday.
Both Clinton City and SCC opened as normal Tuesday, but deteriorating weather conditions saw both educational institutions enacting early releases by mid-morning. SCC closed at 11 a.m. and Clinton City had a staggered release that saw elementary students leaving at 10:30, followed by Sampson Middle at 10:45 and Clinton High at 11.
City superintendent Stuart Blount said his system’s decision to open Tuesday was based on conditions at the time and the prediction of when bad weather might start in Clinton.
“When it was time for school, we had no snow and the predicted ice from the night before had not materialized. Because we are a more condensed school district than some, boundary-wise, our turn-around time to get students safely home is much shorter,” Blount said. “We just felt like we could get some school in today and get students home safely too.”
Safety, Blount said, was always uppermost in school officials’ minds as they tried to decide what is the best option for closing, delaying or keeping school open during inclement weather.
“It’s always a hard call to make.”
Tuesday’s early release, Blount said, went smoothly. Though somewhat chaotic, Blount said each school was manned with additional personnel to make the release as seanmless as possible. In addition, at least one additional adult was placed on each bus to handle children excited over the falling snow.
By noon Tuesday, snow was beginning to accumulate on bridges and overpasses — and on rooftops and in trees — as Department of Transportation crews returned to the roads to spread salt and businesses began to close or make preparations to let their employees leave early.
Holder said Sampson County sheriff’s deputies had indicated that slick spots were beginning to form on some secondary roads, particularly on bridges, and N.C. Highway Patrol officials were urging people to go home and stay there until driving conditions were safe again.
“Unlike a couple weeks ago, this event came in after most had gotten to work, so there are more people out. It’s my hope they go on home and when they get there, they settle in for the next couple of days, until it’s safe to drive,” said Sgt. M.G. McLamb.
“If you have to be out, give yourself plenty of time, allow plenty of distance between vehicles and get home as soon as possible.”
While the snow wasn’t expected to cause major problems, McLamb said it would be far different if the predicted sleet and freezing rain came in Wednesday.
“Conditions are going to get worse. Hopefully most people will understand that and stay off the roads. It’s the safest way. For those who absolutely have to be out, we urge lots of caution, slow driving and staying out only as long as absolutely necessary.”
DOT crews were trying to make travel on Sampson roadways as safe as possible for those who had to be out, with crews back out salting primary roads, particularly bridges early Tuesday afternoon.
With some 1,500 miles of roadway to cover, DOT district engineer Lin Reynolds said his crews would be busy. But, he insisted, they were ready.
“We put out brine yesterday (Monday) and we’re hoping it adhered and the rain didn’t wash most of it away. And we’re out now (Tuesday) starting to salt. The roads are pretty good right now, but we expect they will worsen. When the snow starts sticking, we’ll start pushing,” Reynolds said.
With only one motor grader in Sampson’s fleet, DOT, Reynolds said, would contract three others to help push back the snow once temperatures warm in the early morning.
That clearing will begin with I-40 and continue first to the primary roads, like U.S. 421, 13, 701 and N.C. 24 and 403, and then to secondary roads. “We have a priority order we have to follow, with the interstate first and the most heavily traveled primary roads pretty much at the same time.”
Crews will be out into the night dealing with “hot spots” like heavily snow or ice-covered bridges and overpasses, with the day crew returning to resalt and push back snow and ice.
While the Sampson DOT’s salt dome isn’t at capacity because of the snow two weeks ago, Reynolds said they’d be able to get what they needed to take care of the county’s roads.
“We didn’t fully get the dome restocked from last time, but we’ll get more salt if we need it. It’ll be available and we’ll be ready.”
Likewise, city crews are ready to plow roads when needed, said city manager Shawn Purvis.
“Basically, we will continue operations as normal, with the plows out when they need to be. Jeff (public works director Jeff Vreugdenhil) is watching it closely and will get the plows out when it becomes necessary,” Purvis noted Tuesday, pointing out that in the city snow wasn’t yet accumulating on the roads.
“The ground isn’t as cold this time, so it’s not yet sticking, but we are watching it closely. We put brine down yesterday and we hope it stayed enough to help out.”
As for city offices, Purvis said things would run as normal, with as many personnel there as possible.
“Our offices will be open. Obviosuly we won’t have everyone here because of childcare or safety issues, but right now we are operating as normal as we can. Should we get a lot of ice, that might change.”