Interstate 7 in Kennesaw, Ga., about 20 miles from metro Atlanta, on Tuesday.David Tulis/AP
The South dodged the first punch of a dangerous winter storm Tuesday, but forecasters warned of a potentially "catastrophic" second blow in the form of a thick layer of ice that could result in widespread power outages.
The storm's predicted combination of rain, sleet, heavy snow and thick ice across the region is of "historical proportions," said the National Weather Service office in Peachtree City, Ga.
"There is the potential for it to be a catastrophic event," with ice bringing down trees and power lines, Brian Lynn, a weather service meteorologist, told Reuters.
The streets and highways in metro Atlanta were largely deserted as people heeded advice from officials to hunker down at home, especially after a storm two weeks ago left thousands of people stranded on icy, gridlocked roads for hours when 2 inches of snow fell.
"Last time I was totally unprepared, I was completely blindsided," Lisa Nadir, of Acworth, told The Associated Press. Nadir sat in traffic for 13 hours and then spent the night in her car when the storm hit Jan. 28. "I'm going to be prepared from now on for the rest of my life.”
Nadir was telecommuting from home Tuesday, and just in case she had to leave, she had cat litter in her trunk to spread on icy roads for extra traction.
Eli Jacks, a meteorologist with National Weather Service, told the AP that 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 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.
The Atlanta area and other parts of the South are particularly vulnerable to ice because there are so many trees and limbs hanging over power lines. When the ice builds, 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," Georgia Gov. Nathan 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.
The storm is projected to reach from eastern Texas to the Carolinas and the Middle Atlantic states by late on Wednesday. Heavy snow from the front will hit southern New England by Thursday morning, the weather service said.
Conditions in the South were expected to worsen overnight, with up to an inch of ice predicted in parts of Georgia and central South Carolina.
Two to 6 inches of snow fell in north Georgia on Tuesday, with another 6 to 10 inches expected by Thursday morning.
But Dan Darbe, a weather service meteorologist, said ice was the bigger worry, with a quarter to three-quarters of an inch expected in the area that includes metropolitan Atlanta.
The last significant ice storm in the region was in January 2000, when up to half an inch of ice left more than 350,000 people without power, Darbe told Reuters.
"We're talking a much larger area and a much larger amount of ice" in this storm, he said.
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 Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Georgia, ordering federal agencies to help the state and local responses during the storm. Deal said a priority for that request was generators.
Metro Atlanta, the economic engine of the South, with the headquarters of Fortune 500 companies including Home Depot, UPS, Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola, resembled a ghost town. Schools were closed and grocery store shelves were bare of milk and bread.
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 weather.
On Monday, before a drop of freezing rain or snow fell, Deal declared a state of emergency for nearly a third of Georgia, and state employees were told they could stay home. He expanded the declaration Tuesday to more than half the state's counties.
Delta, which has a major hub in Atlanta, canceled nearly 2,200 flights on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to the AP.