Larry Copeland, Doug Stanglin and Doyle Rice, USA TODAY
ATLANTA - A wet winter storm covered much of the Deep South with snow and ice Tuesday, prompting airlines to cancel thousands of flights while snarling traffic, triggering accidents and sending temperatures down into the teens.
Two to three inches of snow fell in Atlanta, a rarity. More than 1,200 flights into and out of Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport, the nation's busiest, were canceled Tuesday, and more than 250 Wednesday flights through Atlanta were scrubbed in advance.
The snowfall left Georgia highways gridlocked well past the normal end of rush hour, making it difficult if not impossible for many commuters and students to get home.
Hundreds of auto wrecks tied up roads from Georgia to Texas, killing two people in Alabama.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for the entire state late Tuesday afternoon and pleaded for residents, many unaccustomed to coping with snowy driving conditions, to stay off the roads.
"I know many people are trying desperately to pick up their children or simply to get home, and I hope they can get to safe, warm stopping point soon," Deal said. "Once at your destination, if at all possible, please stay off the roads until conditions improve."
The threat of snow and ice prompted the closure of schools and government offices throughout the state and stranded travelers at airports nationwide. Many wireless phone customers lost service as thousands of gridlocked drivers and worried parents overwhelmed cellphone capacity.
Mary McEneaney said her five-mile commute to downtown Atlanta, normally a 20 to 40 minute drive in traffic, took her three hours.
"I had to stop and go to the bathroom at the hotel," she said. "At that rate I knew I wasn't going to make it until I got home."
Pam Sullivan, 46, tried to take the storm in stride as she walked to work in downtown Atlanta and was glad to avoid driving. "You get one big mess with people colliding," she said.
Driving was dangerous throughout most of north and central Georgia, according to the state Department of Transportation, which warned drivers that the massive traffic problems gripping the Atlanta area will be made worse by slick black ice overnight.
Snow was expected to continue in parts of the state while tapering off in Atlanta.
"Black ice is going to be a significant problem throughout much of Georgia tonight,'' said state transportation spokeswoman Natalie Dale.
Snow and sleet fell in Houston and its northern suburbs, and ice on overpasses made driving treacherous. Motorists from Texas to Virginia were warned to stay off the roads, while Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina declared states of emergency.
Popular warm-weather tourist destinations, including New Orleans and some Florida beaches, expected ice and snow over the next two days.
The weather caused more than 3,700 commercial flights to be canceled, and another 3,000 saw major delays, according to FlightStats.com. Nearly 600 scheduled Wednesday flights had also been canceled by late Tuesday.
"This is a historic storm, for its size," AccuWeather meteorologist Mike Smith said.
In Atlanta, icy gridlock that stranded some motorists for as long as eight hours. Some school buses were forced to return to school with children still aboard, unable to reach their dropoff stops. Many faced spending the night at school.
"They have food and we have gas heat and the electricity is on," DeKalb County Emergency Management Director Anthony Clifton said.
Police responded to hundreds of crashes, and cellphone systems overloaded with call, leaving many customers without service.
"Due to weather-related issues, some AT&T customers in the Atlanta area may be experiencing intermittent issues with wireline and wireless services," said spokesman Mark Siegel. "Technicians are closely monitoring our network. We apologize for the inconvenience."
Chicago remained in the grip of its coldest winter in decades, taxing even those who take pride in the Windy City's reputation for ferocious weather.
Public schools were closed for the second day in a row as the mercury again dipped below zero. Some commuter trains were at a standstill due to frozen switches; streets buckled, opening enormous potholes.
"This is the 15th day the temperature has dropped below zero and that has not happened since the winter of 1993-1994," said Matt Friedlein, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service who is based in suburban Romeoville. "It certainly is abnormal."
In Alabama, the state House of Representatives adjourned for the day because of the weather. "There's not enough of us here today," said Rep. Dimitri Polizos, R-Montgomery. "It's crazy weather, and we can't control it."
Greenville, S.C., was expecting as much as two inches of snow.
"Greenville's beautiful but with a little bit of snow it's pretty amazing. It adds a little bit of charm," said downtown resident Willy Senza.
Ed Brewer, pastor of Bountyland Baptist Church in Seneca, S.C., said about a half-inch had of very fine flakes had accumulated there.
"My old mountain granny used to call this kind of snow "'chigger dandruff,'" he said, referring to a common name for mites that are a pesky irritant in the South.
A hard freeze was forecast across the South, along with heavy snow to some areas, particularly along the Carolina Coast and in Virginia, where a foot of snow was expected. There was a threat of icy roads in Austin, Charleston, S.C., Pensacola, Fla., Mobile, Ala., and New Orleans.
"This is is a very dangerous situation because snow and ice are very rare for extreme southern Mississippi," said Robert Latham, executive director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. "We need everyone to have an emergency plan together for this."
At the same time, intense cold continued its onslaught across the north-central and northeastern U.S., with wind chill warnings and advisories in place all the way from Montana to Maine.
The storm will slowly move off the Southeast coast on Wednesday morning, the weather service reports. Snow, sleet and freezing rain will wind down in eastern portions of the Carolinas, southern Georgia and the Florida Panhandle by midday.
After a chilly start, temperatures are forecast to rise above freezing throughout the Southeast by early afternoon. The milder temperatures and mostly sunny skies should allow some of the snow and ice from Tuesday to melt. Even warmer weather is on the way for Thursday in the South.
AccuWeather predicts that the Great Lakes and Northeast will endure one more day of bitterly cold temperatures in the teens and 20s Wednesday before milder temperatures in the 30s and 40s return for Thursday and Friday.
However, after a brief warm-up Wednesday, the northern Plains and Upper Midwest will return to frigid single-digit high temperatures by Thursday.
The slippery roads caused hundreds of wrecks, many with injuries, across the region as drivers spun out and crashed into other drivers or slid off roadways.
In Savannah, schools were closed and residents were "making a run" on grocery stores, said Bret Bell, a city spokesman. He said the main concern was not so much snow as icing on roads during commuting hours.
"We received mocking, like other communities in the South, for canceling schools when we don't have any snow on the ground, but the last thing they want is school buses on ice-slicked roads," Bell said.
In declaring a state of emergency in Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal warned that heavy snow and freezing temperatures could paralyze most roadways.
"We are working to keep open major corridors across the state, but only for those who absolutely must travel," he said.
In New Orleans and surrounding suburbs, sleet and icy streets forced road and school closures and grounded dozens of flights.
All federal government buildings and public schools in New Orleans were closed Tuesday, as were City Park and New Orleans Municipal Court.
The inclement weather also postponed the much-anticipated federal corruption trial of former Mayor Ray Nagin, which began Monday with jury selection.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley declared a state of emergency at noon and activated the state's Emergency Operations Center.
The state's National Guard was standing by to assist first responders and state agencies.
Appalachian Power asked its customers in Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia to conserve electricity and minimize the threat of power disruptions during the cold snap.
The utility says PJM Interconnection, which operates the electricity grid for 13 states and the District of Columbia, has issued a call for voluntary conservation because of expected high demand.
The harsh cold pushing into the South is an extension of the hard freeze that has gripped the Midwest for days. Schools in Chicago are closed for a second day.
In Minnesota, most metro schools and the University of Minnesota are closed as wind chills were expected to drop as low as 35 to 50 degrees below zero.
The state was also struggling with a short supply of natural gas in some parts due to a Canadian pipeline explosion.
Xcel Energy asked all customers, including in the Twin Cities, to cut back on natural gas use and hold their home thermostats at 60 degrees.
The pipeline blast near Winnipeg disrupted supplies of natural gas service for more than 100,000 Xcel customers in northwestern Minnesota, eastern North Dakota and western Wisconsin, the Star-Tribune reports.