A massive storm that has already brought wintry weather to parts of the South started moving into the Atlanta area Wednesday morning, as millions braced for potentially “catastrophic” ice conditions that have forced airlines to cancel thousands of flights across the country.
Atlanta and the surrounding region dodged the first punch of a dangerous winter storm Tuesday, but forecasters warned that the second punch would likely bring a thick layer of ice and heavy winds that could knock out power to thousands of people and leave people stranded in their cold, dark homes for days.
By Wednesday morning, around 2,500 flights had been canceled, with a vast majority either departing or landing in Atlanta, according to the tracking website FlightAware.com.
Delta canceled nearly 2,200 flights on Tuesday and Wednesday, most of them in Atlanta.
Southwest Airlines spokesman Brad Hawkins says Southwest and AirTran have canceled all flights departing from Atlanta on Wednesday. Hawkins says the exact number of flights that have been canceled is unclear, but the airlines operate about 160 departures from Atlanta daily.
Hawkins said the airlines are hoping to resume normal operations on Thursday morning.
Elected leaders and emergency management officials began warning people to stay off the roads, especially after two inches of snowfall caused an icy gridlock two weeks ago that left thousands stranded in their vehicles overnight. It appears many in the region around the state’s capital obliged as the streets and highways of metro Atlanta were uncharacteristically unclogged Tuesday.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed in a news conference at the Georgia Emergency Management Agency’s special operations center Tuesday evening 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.”
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 like “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.
This kind of language was first used in May 1999 for a tornado in Moore, Okla. Forecasters called it a “tornado emergency” to make sure the public knew it was not a typical tornado.
“I think three-quarters of an inch of ice anywhere would be catastrophic,” Jacks said.
But the Atlanta area and other parts of the South are particularly vulnerable because there are so many trees and limbs hanging over power lines. When the ice builds up on them, limbs snap and fall, knocking out power.
“There is no doubt that this is one of Mother Nature’s worst kinds of storms that can be inflicted on the South, and that is ice. It is our biggest enemy,” Gov. Deal said.
While only light rain fell in Atlanta on Tuesday, cities 40 miles northwest saw 2 to 3 inches of snow. The rain was expected to turn into sleet and freezing rain overnight.
By early Wednesday morning, temperatures had fallen to freezing or below in Atlanta and rain, sleet and freezing rain were spreading across the region, MyFoxAtlanta.com reported.
“This storm is easily shaping up to be the worst winter storm we’ve seen since 2000,” meteorologist Joanne Feldman said. “New data this morning shows that snow totals and ice totals could be higher in spots than we thought yesterday.”
Georgia Power reported that more than 2,000 customers were without power early Wednesday, many of them north of Atlanta.
More than 200 utility vehicles from Florida, North Carolina and other Southern states gathered in a parking lot near one of the grandstands at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The state had more than 22,000 tons of salt, 70,000 gallons of brine 45,000 tons of gravel and brought in 180 tons of additional salt and sand. The goal was to make sure at least two interstate lanes were available in each direction. Then material would be used on the most heavily used roads off the highways. Officials were also considering re-routing traffic in extreme circumstances.
“It’s certainly going to be a challenge for us. Ice is definitely different than snow,” state Transportation Commissioner Keith Golden said. “It is very difficult for us to plow ice.”
Hundreds of Georgia 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. President Obama declared a state of emergency in Georgia, ordering federal agencies to help the state and local response during the storm. Deal said a priority for that request was generators.
State and local officials, chastened by tough criticism for their slow response to the Jan. 28 storm, were eager to prove they could handle winter storms.
On Monday, before a drop of freezing rain or snow fell, Deal declared a state of emergency for nearly a third of the state and state employees were told they could stay home. He expanded the declaration Tuesday to more than half the state’s counties.
Dustin Wilkes, 36, of Atlanta, was one of the few who headed to the office Tuesday. His parking lot was mostly deserted.
“I think they probably overreacted,” Wilkes said. “It’s to be expected.”
Atlanta has a painful past of being ill-equipped to deal with snowy weather. Despite officials’ promises after a crippling ice storm in 2011, the Jan. 28 storm proved they still had many kinks to work out.
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.
In northeastern Alabama, two National Guard wreckers were dispatched to help clear jackknifed 18-wheelers on Interstate 65. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said one lesson learned from the storm two weeks ago was to get those wreckers organized earlier.
Parts of northeast Mississippi could see up to 4 inches of snow. South Carolina, which hasn’t seen a major ice storm in nearly a decade, could get a quarter to three-quarters of an inch of ice and as much as 8 inches of snow in some areas.
Snow, rain and sleet fell across much of South Carolina on Tuesday as Gov. Nikki Haley, after discussing the situation with emergency management officials, declared a state of emergency effective at noon Tuesday.
The declaration triggers the National Guard to active duty — to support state agencies with its wrecker teams and four-wheel drive vehicles — and also activates the state’s Emergency Operations Plan, through which all state agencies collaborate if assistance is requested by county emergency managers.
As was the case in last month’s storm, the hazardous conditions weren’t expected to last. Temperatures were forecast to be in the 50s by the weekend.
At a grocery store in Greenville, Judy Roberts, 37, stocked up on bread, milk, chips and drinks before settling in at home with her children, who she predicted would be off school for several days.
“I don’t like driving in snow. But it’s beautiful,” she said. “You have to make the best of it.”
In Greenville, auto mechanic Chris Robinson headed to Home Depot for batteries and other basic supplies. When wintry weather hit two weeks ago, he stocked up on a shovel and rock salt in anticipation of another round.
“Between the cold and the snow, this has been the longest winter,” Robinson, 41, said. “We need a break.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.