USA First Look

Southern states batten down as rare winter storm approaches

A large swath of the US South has gone into emergency mode as multiple inches of snow and sleet begin to fall on a region under-equipped to handled such conditions.

Charles Kenyon, of Birmingham, Ala., walks around downtown Birmingham as freezing rain falls, Friday, Jan. 6, 2017, in Birmingham, Ala.
Brynn Anderson/AP
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Winter storm warnings were issued for a large swath of the US South on Friday, as memories of previous debacles in a region poorly equipped to handle snowfall spurred residents into action.

With up to 8 inches of snow and 1 inch of sleet expected to fall across a region stretching from northeast Louisiana to Pennsylvania, hundreds of flights were cancelled, many schools declared snow days, shoppers began emptying supermarket shelves of staples like milk and bread, and the governors of Alabama and Georgia declared states of emergency.

"If you don't have to travel, don't travel," said Matthew Grantham, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Alabama, adding that conditions will worsen after dusk on Friday, the Associated Press reports.

Many southern states have far fewer snowplows than northern states. And with most roads going unsalted, even a thin coat of ice or snow can lead to traffic jams of epic proportions.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said plans were in place for schools, companies, and governments to dismiss students and workers early to avoid a repeat of the 2014 storm when thousands of commuters that had headed home around the same time became trapped in their cars on gridlocked freeways.

"Our goal, including the goal of the state, is to have everyone off metropolitan Atlanta roadways by 4 p.m.," Mr. Reed said. "We need you home by 4, we need you to leave the city in an orderly fashion."

Shoppers largely heeded those warnings, many making an early run on supermarket shelves.

"I shouldn't have waited to the last minute," Showanda Torres of the East Atlanta Village neighborhood told Reuters, as she pushed her 3-year-old son in a shopping cart at a grocery store.

"The shelves are getting picked clean," she said.

At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the busiest airport in the world, around 350 flights were canceled, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware.com.

In North Carolina, the weather led to the postponement of Gov. Roy Cooper’s inauguration ceremony and events, where, especially in the center of the state, significant snowfall is expected.

"The number one thing is making sure the people of North Carolina are safe," Governor Cooper told a news conference on Friday. "You can do that by staying home."

Oklahoma and Arkansas police have reported scores of accidents as a result of the road conditions, and on Thursday Daniel Noble was killed after his pickup truck struck a guardrail as he took a corner on a road south of Jackson, Ky.

Earlier, however, some saw the storm as reason to celebrate.

At a suburban Birmingham elementary school on Thursday, text messages of news that there would be no classes on Friday were met with elation.

"Up and down the hallways you could hear teachers screaming with excitement, even the custodians," said Amanda Foster, who teaches first grade.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.