by Anna Oakes
The mercury dipped to -8 degrees Fahrenheit in Boone on Tuesday -- the lowest since Feb. 5 and 6, 1996, when temperatures reached a low of -8 on both days, said Dennis Sleighter, meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Blacksburg, Va. Wind chills were even lower, with the NWS issuing a wind chill warning for the area.
On Beech Mountain, temperatures bottomed out at -18 degrees, while Grandfather Mountain reached -17 degrees, with the lowest recorded wind chill at -58. The highest reported wind speed overnight at Grandfather was 86.7 mph, according to the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation.
Sleighter said the cold snap originated from an arctic air mass progressing southward out of Canada and a large upper level low pressure system.
"We do get cold snaps throughout the wintertime," Sleighter said. "This one, though, is particularly strong. The last really good push of arctic air into this much of the country really hasn't happened for about 20 years."
In addition, about three inches of snow fell in Boone on Monday, which combined with very cold temperatures to make road clearing more difficult. The N.C. Department of Transportation reported that some primary roads in and west of Boone were partially covered as of Tuesday afternoon but that crews were continuing work to clear them.
Melissa Harmon, supervisor of Watauga County Communications Center, said dispatchers fielded "a lot" of calls about vehicle accidents and some stranded motorists on Monday, but to her knowledge, there were no serious injuries.
Two accidents occurred at nearly the same time on Friendship Church Road on Monday, but road conditions hampered emergency responders' ability to reach the second incident, Boone Fire Chief Jimmy Isaacs said.
"When we got up there it was just a solid sheet of ice," Isaacs said. "It was just very, very hard to deal with." Isaacs said emergency vehicles kept getting stuck in the curve and could not make progress past the first incident scene to reach the second one. NCDOT crews were called in to treat the road so that responders could reach the second scene. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured, Isaacs said.
On Tuesday, the story was not roads, but pipes. Bursting water and sprinkler lines activated fire alarms throughout the day, including at several area businesses.
According to Andrea Morrell, owner of Pasta Wench, a food products maker on Daniel Boone Drive near New Market Center, her company lost its entire inventory when cast iron pipes on the emergency sprinkler system burst during the night.
"We lost everything," said Morrell. "I came in to find four inches of freezing water on the floor. All of our cardboard boxes that were filled and ready to ship were completely destroyed. Four hundred pounds of flour was ruined. We might be able to salvage some of our frozen inventory, but this is all just very devastating to us."
Morrell added that she had to find about 10 workers on short notice to help her clean up her business space.
The Rite Aid at the Shops at Shadowline also fell victim to a busted water line, as did the Baymont Inn & Suites in Boone and another motel on the N.C. 105 Extension, Isaacs said.
"We're having all kinds of stuff right now," Isaacs said. "We've just been extremely busy all day.
"We knew it was coming," he added, and he warned the problem could get a lot worse.
"A lot of stuff that's frozen now, when it warms up and thaws out -- that's when we'll have trouble," he said. "It'll probably be worse tomorrow than it was today."
Blue Ridge Electric responded to about 500 power outages in Watauga, Caldwell and Ashe and Alleghany counties that occurred beginning at 2:30 a.m. Tuesday. The electric cooperative reported that electricity demand is more than 10 percent higher than normal for this time of year, primarily due to heating needs.
"Our load today reached a new all-time peak of 383 megawatts of usage, which is 12 percent above our previous peak of 340 megawatts, which occurred Jan. 16, 2009," said Lee Layton, chief operating officer of Blue Ridge Electric, in a statement.
The Blowing Rocket Editor Jeff Eason contributed reporting to this article.