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Snowfall sends Durham students, employees home

Northerners may scoff at the few inches of white powder covering the ground, but to most Durham citizens, it's cause for alarm.

The National Weather Service extended its winter storm warning, which covered Orange and Chatham counties, to include Durham and Wake counties Wednesday morning. Classes and other events have been canceled or postponed, and many city and state officials are working overtime to deal with harsh weather conditions.

Students of all ages will enjoy a snow day tomorrow as the Durham Public Schools have canceled all classes today, in addition to the University's cancellations. DPS students left an hour early Wednesday, and all meetings, after-school care, athletic activities and performances were canceled.

The weather, which led many employers to send workers home early yesterday, had its most noticeable effects on road conditions.

"All the employers are letting employees out at the same time, so you get rush hour at three instead of five," explained Peter D'Orazio, street maintenance division superintendent for the city.

D'Orazio said public works employees are working a split shift to ensure the roads stay clear overnight. The city has 18 salt-spreading trucks and a reserve of over 1,000 tons of salt and 350 to 400 tons of salt-sand mix.

The city does not anticipate employing snow plows, unless more than three to four inches of snow accumulate. The Durham Police Department issued a winter storm traffic alert advising drivers involved in accidents to pull off the road or go home and report the accidents, in order to avoid blocking the road.

In addition, Gov. Mike Easley issued a statement encouraging people to stay off the roads until conditions approve. "Ice and snow on our roadways makes for dangerous travel conditions," he said. "I encourage everyone to put safety first."

Conditions varied in severity across the state, and as of Wednesday evening, one fatal incident had been reported in Rowan County.

The state Department of Transportation is working to clear the interstates, then secondary roads, said public information officer Bill Jones.

"Our first priority is to clear the highways that carry the heaviest traffic," he said.

Durham residents have also been rushing to stock up on basic supplies. David Gardner, a manager at the Hillsborough Road Kroger, said his store saw a noticeable increase in traffic Wednesday. "[People are buying] everything--milk, bread, soft drinks, beer," he said. "Business is probably twice as good today as it is on a typical Wednesday."

Durham's chapter of the Red Cross has issued a series of winter weather tips advising citizens to stay indoors and dress appropriately if they must venture outside. The Red Cross also recommends citizens avoid traveling by car and in the case of getting stuck on the road, they are advised to stay with their cars until help arrives.

The winter storm warning is in effect until 10 a.m. today. The National Weather Service is predicting freezing rain for much of today with little additional accumulation. Temperatures are expected to remain steady in the low 30s.

Ironically, the two North Carolina residents best equipped to handle the frigid weather conditions are the least affected. Marsha and Wilhelm, two polar bears recently rescued from a Mexican circus and new to the North Carolina Zoo near Asheboro, remain in quarantine at more seasonable temperatures in the 60s.

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