Chastened by their inability two weeks ago to deal with a couple of inches of snow, Southerners instead parked their cars and filled their fridges ahead of a potentially “historic” snow-and-ice storm that on Wednesday stretched from Texas to North Carolina before an expected trek up the East Coast toward Maine.
In late January in Atlanta, thousands spent the night on jammed roadways after 2.6 inches of snow fell. Now, the city streets were eerily empty, pelted by icy precipitation as temperatures hovered just below freezing. Twitter commenters couldn’t help but compare the desolate streets to scenes from the locally filmed “Walking Dead” cable zombie show.
Twenty-two US states were under winter weather warnings, and Southern states from Louisiana to North Carolina were under states of emergencies. In Atlanta, Mayor Kasim Reed’s voice was featured in robo-calls to nearly every household to warn folks to stay put, as the massive storm threatened to wrap huge chunks of the South in half an inch of ice – prompting worry that millions of people could be without power for a week or more.
Outages were growing Wednesday as tree limbs bent and broke under the weight, collapsing on power lines. About 237,000 customers from Dallas, to Augusta, Ga., were without power as of midday Wednesday.
The National Weather Service on Tuesday called the storm “mindboggling” if not “historic” in its scope and potential for rendering a massive area without power while creating “deceptively dangerous” driving conditions. Government meteorologists in Peachtree City, Ga., tweeted on Wednesday, “air outside filled with the smell of pine and can hear the cracks of trees in the distance. be careful out there.”
The hunkered-down scene was a dramatic contrast to the midday Jan. 28 event that saw 11,000 Alabama schoolchildren become stranded overnight, and the entire city of Atlanta became enmeshed in icy gridlock as panicked school and business officials sent everybody home at the same time, only to be greeted by jackknifed tractor-trailers and iced-over, unscalable hills.
This time, 7,000 state employees and contractors stood at the ready as the National Weather Service warned Georgians to "be prepared to be without power in some locations for days and perhaps as long as a week."
Gov. Nathan Deal (R), who was widely criticized for his administration’s timid response to the last storm, called up 400 National Guardsmen and dozens of Humvees, and the city of Atlanta contracted for dozens more snowplows and sanders, which spread thousands of gallons of brine on key roadways to thwart the ice.
"This is one of Mother Nature's worst kinds of storms that can be inflicted on the South," Governor Deal said. “We’re not kidding. We’re not crying wolf.”
Still smarting from the last storm, residents stayed put en masse: Traffic was light throughout the region, and authorities reported only a smattering of accidents – compared with the thousands that resulted from the last storm. Still, as of Wednesday morning, ice-related accidents had resulted in five deaths across the region.
"If you get even a tenth of inch of ice on a road, it's like a skating rink," Kurt Van Speybroeck, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Dallas, told the Associated Press.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, one of the nation’s key travel hubs, was shut down, with nearly 3,000 flights canceled, according to FlightAware.com. Also in Atlanta, the US Women’s National Team in soccer postponed a grudge match with the team from Russia at the Georgia Dome.
The storm will continue to build through Wednesday, with up to half an inch of ice accumulation, forecasters say. It will then sidle up the East Coast and hit as far north as Maine. New York City may see up to a foot of snow from the storm. The weather advisory for Georgia runs through 1 p.m. Thursday.
“The stage is set for a major winter weather event to impact locations from the Deep South to the Northeast the next few days,” the National Weather Service reported.