ATLANTA — Across the normally balmy American South, winter-weary residents woke up Wednesday to a region encased in ice, snow and freezing rain, with forecasters warning that the worst of the potentially “catastrophic” storm was yet to come.
From Texas to the South’s business hub in Atlanta, roads were slick with ice, tens of thousands were without power, and a wintry mix fell in many areas. More than 20,000 customers were reported without power across the state of Georgia. The Mid-Atlantic region also was expected to be hit.
Officials and forecasters in several states used unusually dire language in warnings, and they agreed that the biggest concern is ice, which could knock out power for days in wide swaths.
Forecasters noted that three-quarters of an inch (19 millimeters) of ice would be catastrophic anywhere. But the Atlanta area and other parts of the South are particularly vulnerable: Many trees and limbs hang over power lines. When ice builds up on them, limbs snap and fall, knocking out power.
In Atlanta, where a storm took the metro region by surprise and stranded thousands in vehicles just two weeks ago, emergency workers stood at the ready. Out-of-state utility vehicles gathered in a parking lot near one of the grandstands at Atlanta Motor Speedway, National Guard troops were on standby in case evacuations were needed at hospitals or nursing homes, and more than 70 shelters were set to open.
Atlanta and the surrounding region dodged a first punch Tuesday, but forecasters warned that the stormy second punch would likely bring a thick layer of ice.
Elected leaders and emergency management officials warned people to stay off the roads. It seemed many in the metro Atlanta area obliged, with streets and highways were uncharacteristically unclogged Tuesday and Wednesday.
On Tuesday evening from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency’s special operations centre, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed implored people to get somewhere safe and stay there.
“The message I really want to share is, as of midnight tonight, wherever you are, you need to plan on staying there for a while,” Reed said. “The bottom line is that all of the information that we have right now suggests that we are facing an icing event that is very unusual for the metropolitan region and the state of Georgia.”
In an early Wednesday memo, the National Weather Service called the storm “an event of historical proportions.”
It continued: “Catastrophic . . . crippling . . . paralyzing . . . choose your adjective.”
Eli Jacks, a meteorologist with National Weather Service, said forecasters use words such as “catastrophic” sparingly.
“Sometimes we want to tell them, ’Hey, listen, this warning is different. This is really extremely dangerous, and it doesn’t happen very often,”’ Jacks said.
Around the Deep South, slick roads were causing problems. Three people were killed and one injured after an ambulance careened off a slick West Texas roadway and caught fire. Icy conditions caused the ambulance to lose control, veer off the road near Carlsbad, then flip upside down before catching fire, the Texas Public Safety Department said.
In North Texas, at least four people died in traffic accidents on icy roads, including a Dallas firefighter who was knocked from an Interstate 20 ramp and fell 50 feet (15 metres), according to a police report.
Also in Texas, an accident involving about 20 vehicles was reported Tuesday along an icy highway overpass just north of Austin.
Delta cancelled nearly 2,200 flights on Tuesday and Wednesday, most of them in Atlanta.