ATLANTA – Sleet and freezing rain was creeping across parts of the South on Tuesday, the beginning of a three-day storm system potentially more devastating than the blast that paralyzed much of the region two weeks ago.
National Weather Service meteorologist Michael Musher said ice accumulation forecasts "remain mind-boggling if not historical" in cities such as Atlanta, Athens, and Augusta in Georgia, Columbia, S.C., and Raleigh, N.C.
"High ice accumulations will make travel impossible," the National Weather Service reported in an advisory Tuesday. "This has the potential to be a catastrophic event. Widespread power outages are possible as ice accumulates on trees and power lines and brings them down."
The storm ultimately will target more than 100 million people, scores of major roads and many major airline hubs from Texas to Georgia, New York and Massachusetts this week, AccuWeather reported.
The storm was already deadly in Texas. At least three weather-related deaths were reported in the Dallas area, including firefighter William Scott Tanksley, 40, who fell from an icy overpass when a car skidded into the scene of an accident.
Alabama, which saw stranded vehicles and 10,000 students spend the night in schools during the January storm, was likely to get a wintry mix, with as much as 3 inches of snow and ice. Parts of Mississippi also could see 3 inches of snow, and a blast of snow over a wide section of Kentucky slickened roads and closed several school districts.
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.
More than 1,200 arrivals and departures already were scrubbed before noon Tuesday at airports in Atlanta, Dallas and Charlotte, N.C., according to tracking service flightstats.com.
Atlanta, essentially shut down by the last storm, was bracing for the worst. While mostly just rain was falling on the city Tuesday morning, a winter storm warning was in effect for all of north and portions of central Georgia until Thursday night, WXIA meteorologist Chris Holcomb said.
Accumulations of 3 to 6 inches of snow and sleet were possible in the northeastern corner of the state, with 1 to 3 inches of snow possible for the Atlanta metro area and just south, he said.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday added 43 more counties across middle Georgia to the state of emergency declaration he issued Monday, meaning that 88 of the state's 159 counties are now in a state of emergency. President Obama declared an emergency in the State of Georgia and ordered federal aid.
The storm that shut Atlanta down Jan. 28 was primarily a traffic disaster: Thousands of schoolchildren spent the night at school, hundreds on buses. Motorists spent the night in gridlocked cars, or they simply left them beside the highway. Many people stayed overnight at work. Before the roadways were cleared, local and state politicians came under intense scrutiny for how they responded.
The latest storm could be worse.
In Atlanta, traffic was lighter than usual as many residents heeded authorities' warning to stay off the roads, most schools were closed for the day and many businesses shuttered.
The snow began falling early Tuesday in parts of north Georgia, and forecasters say the worst is yet to come for Atlanta and areas south and east of the city.
"When you're talking about the amount of ice we're looking at, it's catastrophic," said Aaron Strickland, head of the Georgia Power Storm Center. "It's an event we are extremely fearful of." He urged residents to "make personal preparations," and said Georgia Power has begun bringing in crews from Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Michigan to help restore power as quickly as possible.
"The major thing we're really concerned about is going to be the second wave on Tuesday night into Wednesday and into Thursday, where we could see some pretty significant icing" caused by freezing rain and low temperatures, Gibbs said.
The state Department of Transportation has restocked salt brine and sand supplies and positioned them where they're most likely to be needed, Deal said. He had also implemented a "liberal leave" policy for state employees for Tuesday, meaning they could leave work without penalty.
The DOT was moving dozens of road crews from districts in south Georgia to metro Atlanta, said Commissioner Keith Golden.
Adjutant General Jim Butterworth, head of the Georgia National Guard, said 1,400 four-wheel-drive vehicles were at the ready to help deal with the storm.
The Georgia State Patrol was poised to prevent pass-through truckers from traveling inside the Perimeter Highway, Interstate 285. The State Patrol was also ready to divert truck traffic from area interstates onto U.S. highways and to impose a requirement that big-rigs have tire chains.
In Atlanta, Mayor Kasim Reed said the city has nearly doubled its storm-fighting capacity, contracting for 35 additional spreaders for a total of 60 and for 20 more plows for a total of 40. He said the city was coordinating with 10 neighboring counties on storm planning "to keep each other informed," and had stockpiled 1,500 tons of sand and de-icing materials. "So we feel that with that stockpile we're in a relatively good position."
Atlanta-area residents are anticipating a worse storm, as evidenced by the runs on grocery stores. A Kroger in Smyrna was so jammed there were no parking spaces in the huge lot Monday afternoon, and the lines inside were daunting.
"I think there's definitely overreaction," said Ken White, 48, an aircraft mechanic for Delta Air Lines whose 35-minute commute from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Jan. 28 took 11½ hours. "Well, I say overreaction, but time will tell. They're definitely being a lot more cautious. People are going to be prepared this time."
"I do think (city and state authorities) are better prepared this time," said Vincent Smith, 56, a Xerox account executive whose 35-minute commute took 5½ hours on Jan. 28. "They're just putting a lot more preparation into it this time."
Contributing: Doyle Rice and John Bacon in McLean, Va., Rick Jervis in Austin; Associated Press