ATLANTA (AP) — Across the South, winter-weary residents woke up Wednesday to a region encased in ice, snow and freezing rain, with forecasters warning that the worst of the potentially "catastrophic" storm is yet to come.
From Texas to the Carolinas and the South's business hub in Atlanta, roads were slick with ice, tens of thousands were without power, and a wintry mix fell in many areas. The Mid-Atlantic region also was expected to be hit as the storm crawled east.
Officials and forecasters in several states used unusually dire language in warnings, and they agreed that the biggest concern is ice, which could knock out power for days in wide swaths. Winds, with gusts up to 30 mph in parts of Georgia, promised to exacerbate problems.
In Atlanta, where a storm took the metro region by surprise and stranded thousands in vehicles just two weeks ago, emergency workers stood at the ready. Out-of-state utility vehicles gathered in a parking lot near one of the grandstands at Atlanta Motor Speedway, 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. More than 20,000 customers were reported without power across the state.
City roads and interstates were largely desolate Wednesday morning, showing few vehicle tracks as most people heeded warnings to stay home. Stinging drops of rain fell, punctuated by strong wind gusts, and a layer of ice crusted car windshields. Slushy sidewalks made even short walking trips treacherous. One emergency crew had to pull over to wait out the falling snow before slowly making its way back to the Georgia Emergency Management Agency's special operations center.
On Tuesday evening, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed implored people to get somewhere safe and stay there.
"The message I really want to share is, as of midnight tonight, wherever you are, you need to plan on staying there for a while," Reed said. "The bottom line is that all of the information that we have right now suggests that we are facing an icing event that is very unusual for the metropolitan region and the state of Georgia."
In an early Wednesday memo, the National Weather Service called the storm "an event of historical proportions."
It continued: "Catastrophic ... crippling ... paralyzing ... choose your adjective."
The forecast drew comparisons to an ice storm in the Atlanta area in 2000 that left more than 500,000 homes and businesses without power and an epic storm in 1973 that caused an estimated 200,000 outages for several days. In 2000, damage estimates topped $35 million.
Eli Jacks, a meteorologist with National Weather Service, said forecasters use words such as "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.
He noted that three-quarters of an inch of ice would be catastrophic anywhere. But the Atlanta area and other parts of the South are particularly vulnerable: Many trees and limbs hang over power lines. When ice builds up on them, limbs snap and fall, knocking out power.
Around the Deep South, slick roads were causing problems. In North Texas, at least four people died in traffic accidents on icy roads, including a Dallas firefighter who was knocked from an Interstate 20 ramp and fell 50 feet, according to a police report.
Also in Texas, an accident involving about 20 vehicles was reported Tuesday along an icy highway overpass in Round Rock, just north of Austin. Police dispatchers said no serious injuries were reported and the roadway was cleared by Tuesday evening.
In Mississippi, two weather-related traffic deaths were reported.
In northeastern Alabama, two National Guard wreckers were dispatched to help clear jackknifed 18-wheelers on Interstate 65. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said one lesson learned from the storm two weeks ago was to get those wreckers organized earlier.
Michelle Owen, of Mount Pleasant, Tenn., was driving north on Interstate 65 when she hit an icy patch on a bridge. Her sport-utility vehicle and a trailer it was pulling fishtailed, sending her 18-year-old son Tyler through the rear window and on to the car that was atop the trailer.
"He wound up on top of the Mustang we were hauling," Owen said. He suffered only minor injuries.
Delta canceled nearly 2,200 flights on Tuesday and Wednesday, most of them in Atlanta.
Associated Press writers Ray Henry and Jeff Martin in Atlanta; Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala.; and Russ Bynum in Savannah, Ga., contributed to this report.