Another Southern winter storm causes a massive traffic jam, this time in NC; power out to 525K

The Associated Press

Traffic along Independence Boulevard near Hawthorne Lane crawls along the slick roadway as a winter storm hits Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/The Charlotte Observer, Davie Hinshaw) MAGS OUT; TV OUT; NEWSPAPER INTERNET ONLY

Associated Press + More

By KATE BRUMBACK and CHRISTINA A. CASSIDY, Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) — Drivers got caught in monumental traffic jams and abandoned their cars Wednesday in North Carolina in a replay of what happened in Atlanta just two weeks ago, as another wintry storm across the South iced highways and knocked out electricity to more than a half-million homes and businesses.

While Atlanta's highways were clear, apparently because people learned their lesson the last time, thousands of cars lined the slippery, snow-covered interstates around Raleigh, N.C., and short commutes turned into hours-long journeys.

As the storm glazed the South with snow and freezing rain, it also pushed northward along the Interstate 95 corridor, threatening to bring more than a foot of snow Thursday to the already sick-of-winter mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

At least nine traffic deaths across the region were blamed on the treacherous weather, and nearly 3,300 airline flights nationwide were canceled.

The situation in North Carolina was eerily similar to what happened in Atlanta: As snow started to fall around midday, everyone left work at the same time, despite warnings from officials to stay home because the storm would move in quickly.

Soo Keith of Raleigh left work about a little after noon, thinking she would have plenty of time to get home before the worst of the snow hit.

Instead, Keith, who is three months pregnant, drove a few miles in about two hours and decided to park and start walking, wearing dress shoes and a coat that wouldn't zip over her belly.

With a blanket draped over her shoulders, she made it home more than four hours later, comparing her journey to the blizzard scene from the movie "Dr. Zhivago."

"My face is all frozen, my glasses are all frozen, my hair is all frozen," the mother of two and Chicago native said as she walked the final mile to her house. "I know how to drive in the snow. But this storm came on suddenly and everyone was leaving work at the same time. I don't think anybody did anything wrong; the weather just hit quickly."

Caitlin Palmieri drove two blocks from her job at a bread store in downtown Raleigh before getting stuck. She left her car behind and walked back to work.

"It seemed like every other car was getting stuck, fishtailing, trying to move forward," she said.

Forecasters warned of a potentially "catastrophic" storm across the South with more than an inch of ice possible in places. Snow was forecast overnight, with up to 3 inches possible in Atlanta and much higher amounts in the Carolinas.

As the day wore on, power outages climbed and the dreary weather came in waves.

Ice combined with wind gusts up to 30 mph snapped tree limbs and power lines. More than 200,000 homes and businesses lost electricity in Georgia, South Carolina had about 245,000 outages, and 100,000 people in North were without power. Some people could be in the dark for days.

As he did for parts of Georgia, President Barack Obama declared a disaster in South Carolina, opening the way for federal aid. In Myrtle Beach, S.C., palm trees were covered with a thick crust of ice.

In Atlanta, which was caught unprepared by the last storm, streets and highways were largely deserted this time. Before the first drop of sleet even fell, area schools announced they would be closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. Many businesses in the corporate capital of the South shut down, too.

The scene was markedly different from the one Jan. 28, when thousands of children were stranded all night in schools by less than 3 inches of snow and countless drivers abandoned their cars after getting stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours and hours.

Matt Altmix walked his Great Dane, Stella, in Atlanta because "even in the snow, you still have to do your business."

"I think some folks would even say they were a little trigger-happy to go ahead and cancel schools yesterday, as well as do all the preparation they did," Altmix said. "But it's justified."