By Tom Watkins and Ed Payne, CNN
After icing parts of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, a winter storm arrived Wednesday in Georgia, dropping a mix of ice and rain that was expected to continue pelting the Southeast into Thursday.
Area residents had heeded ample warnings issued by forecasters, emptying grocery store shelves, filling up their tanks with gas and filling their trunks with salt. In Atlanta, the city that couldn’t get out of its own way after a 2.6-inch snowfall two weeks ago, road crews were staged along nearly empty highways.
The low is expected to move up the East Coast, dropping snow on the Northeast, with 4 to 8 inches predicted for Washington and 6 to 10 inches on New York from midnight Wednesday into the day Thursday.
National Weather Service forecasters say the storm — packed with sleet, snow, rain and ice — is a potentially “catastrophic event.”
“This is one of Mother Nature’s worst kinds of storms that can be inflicted on the South,” Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “That is ice. It is our biggest enemy.”
In Georgia, more than 400 members of the National Guard were deployed for weather duty, and about 100 each for the Carolinas and Alabama.
Sleet and freezing rain began falling across Georgia early Wednesday, causing scattered power outages — almost 74,000, with the majority of them in the metro Atlanta area, according to a tally from power companies.
More than 18,000 were without power in South Carolina, and another 900 had no electricity in Alabama. The power companies said Wednesday morning they expect those numbers to rise over the next 24 hours.
Georgia Power, the state’s largest utility, warned that hundreds of thousands of customers could be without electricity “for days.”
“This has the opportunity to be a huge event when you’re talking about the amount of ice you’re looking at,” Aaron Strickland, the emergency operations chief for the power company, told reporters.
The utility staged fleets of trucks across the area. Teams from Florida, Texas and Ohio bolstered local line crews.
More wicked weather coming
Twenty-two states — from Louisiana to Maine — are under winter advisories.
“Widespread and extended power outages are likely as ice accumulates on trees and power lines and brings them down,” the warning says. “Please prepare to be without power in some locations for days and perhaps as long as a week.”
In the Appalachians, more than 8 inches of snow were predicted to fall Wednesday.
Accumulations of 3 to 5 inches are expected in metropolitan Atlanta, and more in its northern suburbs.
Northeast Georgia and upstate South Carolina could get more.
Residents of Charlotte, North Carolina, were looking at up to a foot of snow, while mountainous southwestern Virginia could see up to 14 inches.
Closings and cancellations
Throughout the Southeast, hundreds of businesses, churches, government offices and school systems were closed because of the weather, CNN affiliates reported.
Among the cities with lengthy lists of closings were Atlanta, Nashville, Birmingham, Alabama; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Charleston, South Carolina; Columbia, South Carolina; Memphis, Tennessee; Little Rock, Arkansas, and Charlotte, North Carolina.
In Atlanta, the U.S. Women’s National Team postponed its soccer match with Russia, which was scheduled to take place Wednesday in the Georgia Dome. It also canceled its training session Tuesday evening.
The game was moved to Thursday at 7:30, and those who bought tickets for the Wednesday match can use their tickets to get into Thursday’s game, the U.S. Soccer Federation said in a statement.
“The decision was made in accordance with the proactive approach by the city of Atlanta and state of Georgia to reduce the problems that occurred during a winter storm in late January,” the federation said, explaining its decision to cancel the game Monday.
The storm system was taking its toll on travel.
Amtrak suspended some of its rail service in the Northeast, South and Mid-Atlantic regions for Wednesday.
Nationwide, more than 2,600 flights were canceled, according to FlightAware.com.
More than 800 of those cancellations occurred at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where some Delta Air Lines employees overnighted Tuesday in parked planes because hotels in the area were packed.
Georgia’s Department of Transportation put crews on 12-hours shifts to salt, sand and scrape the roadways.
Gov. Deal said the state has brought in an additional 180 tons of salt and sand, and urged residents not to put themselves “in jeopardy or danger.”
Residents complied. Tuesday’s rush-hour traffic was light. Traffic clustered around gas stations and grocery stores.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley dispatched additional Highway Patrol officers to help with the expected accidents and stranded motorists on state highways, her office announced.
At least five deaths have been blamed on the weather, including three people who died when an ambulance driver lost control on an icy patch of road outside of Carlsbad, Texas.
The ambulance slid off the roadway into a ditch, where it rolled over, caught fire and burned, the Texas Department of Public Safety said. A patient, a paramedic and another passenger were pronounced dead at the scene.
“If you get even a tenth of inch of ice on a road, it’s like a skating rink,” said Kurt Van Speybroeck, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Dallas.
In Mississippi, where the northern part of the state could see up to four inches of snow, authorities blamed the storm for two traffic deaths.
CNN’s Eliott C. McLaughlin, Stephanie Gallman and Sean Morris contributed to this report.
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