With temperatures gradually rising and leftover snow melting on the sidewalks, weather outlets and emergency services reflect on Winter Storm Benji.
The storm, initially reported for Friday evening into Saturday morning with light rain to a potential 1 inch of snow, far exceeded estimates. The National Weather Service (NWS) issued on 5:30 a.m. Friday morning a winter storm warning in southeastern McDowell and central and southern mountains of North Carolina with expectations of 4 to 6 inches of snow, and localized amounts of up to 8 inches for areas exceeding 5,000 feet.
According to Foothills Weather Network (FWN)’s Chief Meteorologist Chris White, two factors that were instrumental in shifting the forecast from one inch of snow to much higher were low level cooling dynamics that fell into the lower atmosphere and a one degree temperature change.
“Going from 33 to 32 degrees, everything changes, and in this case, the cooler temperature allowed snow to stay, freeze and gather accumulation earlier than what we anticipated,” said White. “With the dynamics in atmosphere at play, this was an overachiever.”
The result was a snow flurry throughout Friday morning into Saturday evening that covered McDowell with as much as nine to 10 inches in areas like Old Fort, Dysartsville and Ashford-North Cove. On Friday morning, McDowell County Schools dismissed elementary schools at 9:30 a.m., followed by secondary schools and McDowell Tech at 10 a.m. On Monday, McDowell County Schools and Early Childhood Enrichment Center opened on a two-hour delay.
According to White, McDowell’s reported inches of snow were much higher than other areas the network typically covers.
Road conditions worsened within a few hours on Friday morning, creating limited visibility and slick driving conditions. By 1:45 p.m. that afternoon, more than 30 motor vehicle accidents and collisions were reported, as well as multiple reports of stranded motorists, according to Emergency Services Director William Kehler. Among these incidents were: six stranded vehicles on Harmony Grove Road in Nebo; a stranded school bus on Bethlehem Road; a three-vehicle collision on Stacey Hill Road involving a tractor trailer and a UPS truck; and a vehicle rollover on I-40 westbound at the 72 mile marker.
Over the weekend, Duke Energy and REA reported 2,875 combined power outages throughout McDowell. In response, an emergency shelter was opened at First Baptist Church in Marion on Saturday, remaining open until 9 a.m. Sunday.
By Sunday, temperatures reached between the high 30s and low 40s during the day and dropped to low 20s overnight, allowing for comparatively dry and sunny weather to melt surrounding snow. According to FWN’s seven-day forecast, temperatures grew on Monday to a high of 47 degrees Fahrenheit under mostly sunny conditions, with Tuesday anticipating similar results with a high near 42.