Project 20/10: City, county surge ahead with bond-funded and major capital projects (#14)
Project 20/10: Brier Creek turns development eyes to eastern Durham County (#12)

Project 20/10: Ice storm shuts down the Bull City (#13)

Ice_storm  When I asked for feedback on the top stories of the decade, one item came up in a surprising number of submissions:

The 2002 ice storm. And while we're largely focusing on thematic trends in this roundup of news, some stories merit exception, this one among them.

For many Durhamites, December 2002 was a time when the lights went out -- victims of an inch of ice that downed power lines throughout North and South Carolina -- and never seemed to want to come back on.

Even as neighboring communities saw power restored within days, Durham and Chapel Hill lagged the rest of the region, leading to angry cycles of blame and recrimination from the western half of the Triangle, and couldn't-help-it responses from Duke Power, which said the two cities just happened to be among both the last-hit and heaviest-hit cities.

The winter fun started on Wednesday, December 4, when a bad winter ice storm hit the mid-Atlantic.

Forecasters initially predicted only a modest level of ice accumulation, not a sufficient level to impact public services. Instead, an inch of ice gathered on branches and power lines.

Many power lines were brought down under the weight of all that ice -- or when tree branches fell on them.

Almost 350,000 customers of today's Progress Energy (then Carolina Power & Light) in the Triangle were affected in the Wake-centric service area. But that number was almost 150,000 in Durham and Chapel Hill, which were relatively speaking much more heavily impacted by the storm.

Schools and local businesses shut down, and residents hunkered down in the cold. 

And residents discovered some of the unique perils of bad weather, from cell phones failing when their tower sites' batteries died, to the small problem of cordless phones being out of service without electrical power. Sales of corded phones soared.

So did those of kerosene stoves and lamps -- if you could find a gas station with both kerosene and electrical service. Sadly, carbon monoxide poisonings and illnesses soared as well, as twenty-first century Durhamites turned back to unfamiliar nineteenth-century methods of heating and cooking.

By Sunday Dec. 9, almost all of CP&L's customers in Wake and elsewhere were back online with power.

But Duke Power? Not so much.

At the end of Dec. 9, the N&O noted, tens of thousands of customers in Durham and Chapel Hill remained without electrical service.

By the morning of Wed. Dec. 11, one week after the storm, that number still hovered at the 50,000+ mark -- 36,300 in Durham, or one-third of those initially affected.

Duke Power began to tell customers that if they didn't have power already, it could be the weekend -- ten days from initial service loss -- before electricity might come back on.

Residents also began to complain about seeming inequities in service restoration. Southpoint came back to life within a day of power loss -- which Duke explained was due to its proximity to a major power backbone, nothing more, nothing less.

But some priority-service organizations, including a state hospital in Butner, complained they didn't get power soon enough -- and couldn't get through to Duke in some cases. In fact, the City found that its emergency plan with the utility was decades out of date, with out-of-service phone numbers and contact names who'd long left the utility.

Naturally, the whole mess led to a wave of complaints and accusations. Mayor Bell complained that Durham was getting short shrift from Duke Power, and that loaned electrical linemen he spoke with in the hotels they were staying in were surprised Duke was only putting them in on 12-hour shifts, versus the 16-hour shifts they were used to with their own utility companies.

The N&O would note in its later analysis that CP&L had a much smaller area to focus on, but also noted that Duke Power had cut back its in-house lineman staff throughout the 1990s. 

Additionally, the storm hit South Carolina first, and hard, and the Charlotte-based utility initially sent crews there. Durham, sitting at the end of the utility's service area, got caught up in being last.

Reinforcements from other utilities were slow in coming to Duke, and when they did, the utility sent them to a staging area in Charlotte first, and then doubled-back some to Durham.

Duke defended its 12-hour day schedules, arguing that it was bound to be a long recovery in areas like Durham where up to 90% of customers were impacted, and that it did so for workers' safety. CP&L staff worked 16-hour day shifts.

Duke also noted that it cleared up service problems much faster than it had after Hurricane Fran devastated the region in the late 1990s, though given the outrage over those issues, that's not much to be proud of, one would think.

Ironically, the whole mess happened a few months before the 30-year franchise between Duke Power and Durham came up for renewal. Yet state regulators and rules -- and the fact that even a municipal takeover of Duke Power's franchise area would require a buyout of utility infrastructure costing into the hundreds of millions of dollars -- made any threat of a booting out little more than a threat.

Photograph credit: Flickr user pravin.premkumar, licensed under Creative Commons (link)


Todd P

We lost power for 11 days after the ice storm, and for 8 days after Fran. In both cases, we lived in neighborhoods with underground utilities.

I remember that one of the reasons Duke Power gave for the extensive outages and slow recovery in Durham was the more restrictive standard Durham had (or has) for trimming trees away from utility lines. This results in more "goalpost" trees around Durham that eventually grow back and threaten the lines versus other communities Duke Power serves where those trees would simply be removed.

Just as the City mows sewer easements to keep tree roots from clogging sewer lines, the City should work with Duke Power to protect power lines from tree limbs. The projects on Duke and Gregson streets to replace poorly placed oak trees with smaller trees is a great start. Durham should also allow Duke Power to trim or remove trees as needed to keep the lines up and the juice flowing.

The next big ice storm could come this winter. The weather forecast is for 33 degrees and rain tonight. I would hate to see another 11 day wait for the power to come back on.


I loved the GaPower crews who came up. I talked to one crew on the side of the road by Northgate, told them where I lived, and thanked them for coming up from GA to give us power. A GaPower crew came the next day and fixed our lines.

It could have been a coincidence but I remember the power coming back in totally haphazard ways.

Erik Landfried

It is a little funny that this makes the list, but I agree that when it comes to specific local events this decade, the ice storm might be the most memorable.

That was the worst winter storm I can remember (and I grew up in Boston). In fact, I had just moved from Boston to Chapel Hill that summer and after the first six months I had trouble understanding why everyone thought the weather was so great here. I moved in during a heat wave and had trees crashing on my apartment in December. Woo hoo, Carolina weather!

One thing that was not mentioned in this post though was how indescribably beautiful it was. It was like being in a fairly tale. Chaotic, dangerous, frustrating, yes. But stunning as well.

Todd P

Good point Erik - it was beautiful. Even the night of the storm was unusual because as the lights went out, we were treated to a 'blue lightning' storm as transformers blew out all over town.

Merry Rabb

We lost home phone service (Verizon) for two weeks after the ice storm. This taught me to keep my cell phone charged. It's also one reason we ultimately switched to phone service through Time Warner. Any time someone says "but if you lose power you lose your phone service" I just shrug.


You're either referring to an "ice" storm--which I vaguely remember, or the "light dusting" WRAL predicted that led to the worst traffic nightmare in Triangle history. I don't remember what year it was, but here's my account of the "light dusting" that made roads as slick as any ice storm.

I remember it took me 20 minutes to get home, versus the normal 12 minutes. From RTP, I took Ellis to Miami, and when I reached the intersection with Hwy 70, the cars were backed up to Raleigh all the way from I85 and not moving at all. Once I crossed over to Sherron Road, it was clear sailing all the way home. Consider that many of those commuters living in NW Raleigh could have easily taken the Sherron Rd/Hwy 98 shortcut, I could only surmise they weren't familiar with the routes, and didn't spend enough time studying local maps when they moved here. After a few hours, I was able to convince my boss, who was always afraid to go through Durham, to take my normal route as a back way to his home off of Six Forks. He got home with no problems, and didn't encounter any menacing gangs of black youth along the way.

Why, I thought, would so many people who worked in RTP and Durham want to live so far away? One of my coworkers who lived in Zebulon said it took him ELEVEN hours to get home!

It may have been slow getting from RTP to Durham, but in no way was the city shut down due to this minor winter storm compared to Raleigh. From my perspective, all the roads leading into Durham from RTP were relatively less traveled and cars were moving. We didn't have any better road clearing, but it became clear to me at that time there were far fewer Durhamites working around RTP. It's amazing how perceptions affect where people choose to locate, and how much hassle and expense people are willing to put up with to stay clear of Durham. That may be changing, as I've noticed a marked increase in traffic on 147 over the last decade, especially as the number of RTP employees have declined.

Samantha E.

For our household (for the Dec 2002 ice storm, not the Jan 2000 "light dusting), the impact went beyond the inconvenience of staying up at all hours to keep the fireplace going (our only source of heat) or being unexpectedly propelled back in time (albeit temporarily) to a way of life that was much more dependent on the natural daylight that was in short supply at that time of year. Even more jarring was the disruption of the 24/7 electronically-facilitated life most of us take for granted. Good luck finding a grocery store open, or finding a gas station that could take anything other than cash -if their pumps were able to operate at all. Thank goodness for the many friends and neighbors who came together to help people out, share food, saw up branches that broke under the weight of the ice, etc. Not a fun time.

Still No Fan of Duke Power

For me, the reason this story was so memorable was the shameful response by Duke Power. Remember, this was a company that had just been taken to task for its part in various energy trading scandals, while serving as a prominent cheerleader for deregulation. But when it came time to take care of its customers in an emergency, it couldn't own up. I didn't see a Duke Power truck for over a week, but I did see lots of Georgia Power and Alabama Power crews. I thanked everyone of them, while inviting them to annex us into their service areas.

Myers Sugg

I remember the ice storm. The thing I remember the most was the darkness, and the cold. We had phone service the whole time, and hot water, provided by Public Service Co. We however didn't have much of a heat source, and it was much warmer under the blankets in bed at 7:00, than trying to stay up and read by candlelight in the den.

Yes, trees did play a roll in the downed power lines. No, I wouldn't like to repeat those 7 days. However I disagree with Todd P's assessment that these large well established trees that provide us with beauty, and free airconditioning in the summer, must be removed or replaced. I don't have a problem with replacing diseased trees, but considering that these trees provide so much benefit the overwhelming majority of the time, I don't consider that approach as appropriate.

Myers Sugg

Myers Sugg

Oh, and I was not pleased with Duke Power's response during this "weather event". Every effort should have been made to get folks' service re-established, by calling in troops from other utilities, assuming Duke didn't have the capacity. If the podunk high rate public power utility in my hometown can call in backups from other cities, AND investor owned utilities, quickly after hurricanes, so can Duke Power. Capacity was out there, but not just here. IMHO Duke chose to limit its requests for backup so as not to payout the premium rates required to do so.


Todd P

Myers - The big trees that have been turned into goalposts by Duke Power tree trimmers because they extend on both sides of power lines are no longer beautiful or healthy. I love shade trees as much as anyone, but these trees need to be replaced by something smaller that does not pose a risk to the lines.

This is exactly the same as mowing sewer easements to protect the sewer lines from tree roots. You can't go back and plant new trees on top of the sewer lines, and you shouldn't be able to plant ones under utility lines that can endanger those lines when the trees grow up.

Myers Sugg

Todd P:

I concur that the goal posts are not attractive, but I'll take them as long as these stately trees are healthy, compared to say a replacement crepe myrtle that gets lopped off each spring. More regular pruning of some of these existing trees would minimize the goal posting effect.

I think its best we agree to disagree on this one.


M Schoen

it seems only this last year that serious pruning or tree replacement has occurred. I got a generator as it was all I could do to keep my family alive and warm and well fed the last time. with "El Nin~o" this year... maybe we will be ready.

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