A winter storm that killed two people in Louisiana, two in North Carolina and one in Houston has blanketed the South in snow and ice, causing traffic pileups, canceling hundreds of flights and prompting officials to urge people to stay indoors through Thursday afternoon, when a considerable warm-up is expected.
More than 400 flights had been canceled by late Thursday morning, most to and from airports in Atlanta and North Carolina, according to the tracking site FlightAware.
Thousands of customers across Georgia and North Carolina had lost electricity, utility providers said, and officials in Louisiana opted Thursday morning to keep portions of at least four interstate highways closed because of ice, they said. State offices in parts of Georgia and Louisiana were due to remain closed Thursday for a second day, officials said.
Snow and icy conditions made roads in parts of the South and along the East Coast treacherous after a winter storm dumped snow Wednesday from the Florida Panhandle to Maine.
A swath of central North Carolina picked up more than 6 inches of snow, with some areas between Raleigh and Greensboro getting 10 inches. Some parts of New England got 6 inches.
‘Do not drive’
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced the first fatalities in his state during a news conference Thursday. The driver and a passenger died when a car ran off the road in Washington County, he said.
Since Tuesday evening, North Carolina troopers had responded to 3,500 calls, including 2,000 collisions, he said.
“The snow is beautiful,” Cooper said, “but the roads are treacherous. Do not drive unless you absolutely have to.”
In West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, a fire official was fatally injured Wednesday when a pickup truck pulling a trailer lost control on an icy road and hit the chief, who was investigating a previous crash, Louisiana State Police said.
Cooper pointed to a warning from retired stock car racer Dale Earnhardt Jr., who tweeted that North Carolinians should stay home, along with a photo of a stuck car attached to a line and winch on his vehicle.
“5 minutes after helping these folks I center punched a pine tree. All good. Probably just needs a new alignment,” the winner of 26 races in NASCAR’s top division said. Earnhardt tweeted again to clarify he was not in the crash but scratched the winch when he was driving too fast and “being a bit of a fool.”
Frigid temperatures pose dangers
Social media was littered with similar photos and videos of motorists sliding off ice-coated lanes across the South, where governments often aren’t equipped with salt and plows.
Nearly 600 crashes were reported in Harris County, Texas, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said.
“Even if you think you want to go out … to go to the grocery store, the truth is they haven’t been able to be resupplied. So, just wait,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett warned Wednesday morning.
The sheriff’s office in neighboring Fort Bend County was more blunt, tweeting: “Houston is still closed, Fort Bend. Go back to bed.”
Even where accumulation was lighter, travel could be dangerous, given the frigid temperatures, the National Weather Service said on Twitter.
In Houston, a homeless person died showing signs of hypothermia, the mayor and fire chief said. In New Orleans, someone died in a weather-related accident, the mayor said.
In Tennessee, which had the coldest pockets in the South, wind chills made the air feel as cold as 10 below zero.
On Thursday morning, wind chill advisories covered nearly 30 million people and included Atlanta, New Orleans, Mobile, Alabama, and stretched as far south as Boca Raton and Naples, Florida.
Hard freeze warnings extended along much of the Gulf Coast into Florida, with below-freezing temperatures in Orlando and Tampa.
Forecasters said chilly air would hang around from the South to the Northeast, leaving icy roads and hazardous conditions through Thursday, when temperatures were due to begin climbing.
“This morning the freezing temperatures stretched all the way down towards Orlando,” said CNN meteorologist Judson Jones. “However, they’re going to rebound really quickly today.”
By Thursday afternoon, temperatures throughout the South will have moved above freezing, he said, and most areas will see near “normal” weather temperatures through this weekend.