An ice storm gripped the winter-weary South on Wednesday, knocking out power to a wide swath of the region as the outages nearly doubled by the hour, and forecasters warned the worst of the potentially “catastrophic” storm was yet to come.
From Texas to the Carolinas and the South’s business hub in Atlanta, roads were slick, businesses and schools were closed and people hunkered down for the storm. Just hours into it, sleet, snow and freezing rain had encased tree limbs, sending them crashing on to power lines. More than 100,000 homes and businesses were without power and the number steadily increased. Forecasters warned relief with warmer temperatures wasn’t expected until Thursday.
Officials and forecasters in several states used unusually dire language in warnings, and they agreed that the biggest concern was ice, which could knock out power for days. Winds, with gusts up to 30 mph in parts of Georgia, exacerbated problems.
In Atlanta, where a storm took the metro region by surprise and stranded thousands in vehicles just two weeks ago, tens of thousands of customers were reported without power. City roads and interstates were largely desolate, showing few vehicle tracks as most people heeded warnings to stay home.
The few that ventured out walked to the pharmacy, rode the train or walked their dogs.
“Even in the snow, you still have to do your business,” said Matt Altmix, who took out his Great Dane, Stella. “After the first snow, we kind of got our snow excitement out of the way. But now it’s more the drudgery of pushing on.”
Stinging drops of sleet fell, punctuated by strong wind gusts, and a layer of ice crusted car windshields. Slushy sidewalks made even short walking trips treacherous. One emergency crew had to pull over to wait out the falling snow before slowly making its way back to the Georgia Emergency Management Agency’s special operations center.
The combination of sleet, snow and freezing rain was expected to coat power lines and tree branches with more than an inch of ice between Atlanta and Augusta.
In normally busy downtown areas, almost every business was closed, except for a CVS pharmacy.
Amy Cuzzort, who spent six hours in her car during the traffic standstill of January’s storm, said she’d spend this one at home, “doing chores, watching movies – creepy movies, `The Shining,'” referring to the film about a writer who goes mad while trapped in a hotel during a snowstorm.
In Decatur, just outside Atlanta, Georgia State University student Matt Stanhope, 23, ventured outside to go to a pharmacy but then planned to stay home.
“Everything is just on pause,” he said, gazing at vacant streets.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed implored people Tuesday night to get somewhere safe and stay there.
“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,” Reed said.
In an early Wednesday warning, the National Weather Service called the storm “an event of historical proportions.”
It continued: “Catastrophic … crippling … paralyzing … choose your adjective.”
The forecast drew comparisons to an ice storm in the Atlanta area in 2000 that left more than 500,000 homes and businesses without power and an epic storm in 1973 that caused an estimated 200,000 outages for several days. In 2000, damage estimates topped $35 million.
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.
He noted that three-quarters of an inch 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.
Around the Deep South, slick roads were causing problems. 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, according to a police report.
Also in Texas, an accident involving about 20 vehicles was reported Tuesday along an icy highway overpass in Round Rock, just north of Austin. Police dispatchers said no serious injuries were reported.
In Mississippi, two weather-related traffic deaths were reported.
Delta canceled nearly 2,200 flights on Tuesday and Wednesday, most of them in Atlanta.
For Bob Peattie of Bayshore, N.Y., and Lee Harbin of San Antonio, Texas, it was the second time in two weeks that their business meetings in Atlanta were canceled because of bad weather. Both work for a software consulting company were staying put at downtown hotel.
“In two weeks, we’ll do it again,” Harbin said, laughing.
They planned to work as long as the power remained on and they had Internet access.
“We can be sitting anywhere as long as we have connectivity,” Peattie said. “You make the best out of everything.”