ATLANTA (AP) — Southerners more accustomed to sunshine than snow ditched wrecked cars on icy roadsides and huddled in chilly, dark homes Monday as a wintry blast swept the region and threatened days of treacherous conditions.
The storm canceled more than 2,000 flights in the region, cut power to thousands and even forced Auburn University to cancel campus viewing parties for the national championship bowl game. Sleet and freezing rain followed the snow in many areas from Louisiana to the Carolinas, and low temperatures across much of the region were expected to turn slushy roads into sheets of ice by Tuesday morning.
Most major cities in the South have only a handful of snow plows, if any at all, and their work was hampered in some places by stranded cars. Officials in several states reported hundreds of wrecks and urged drivers to stay home. At least four people died in weather-related crashes.
In Atlanta, under three to four inches of snow and ice, state officials were forced to move Monday's inauguration of Gov. Nathan Deal from the state Capitol steps into the House chamber. The inaugural gala was scrapped to keep supporters off treacherous roads.
Emily Blackwell and Whitney Ball, both 22-year-old students at Georgia State University, were stuck Monday at a north Atlanta apartment complex where they'd come to watch football the night before. Ball's late 1990s model, white Ford Mustang had rear-wheel drive and couldn't make it up the steep hill at the complex.
“It was slushy” Sunday night, Ball said. “I tried to drive on it, but it was just as bad.”
Both had hoped to get home before the snow hit. They said they had been well-stocked with food and supplies at their own homes — but that their friends weren't as prepared.
“I even bought a sled,” Ball said. “And now I'm here without it.”
Michigan native Phil Cooper, who lives in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, said he drove 20 miles on barely plowed highways to get to work in the northern part of the city.
“Pretty normal for Michigan, but here in Atlanta, you take 16 lanes of highway and it turns into two,” Cooper said.
The winter weather began rolling across the South on Sunday, coating bridges and roads with snow, sleet and freezing rain. The governors of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and Tennessee declared emergencies and schools and colleges called off classes.
The snowy weather would begin spreading north to Ohio by Tuesday, forecasters said.
In Alabama, roads were coated with ice in Shelby County, just south of Birmingham, where Waffle House waitress Stephanie McGougin served eggs and grits to the few diners who could make it inside early Monday. There were plenty of empty seats at the restaurant, which is normally busy.
“I think we're about the only place open,” McGougin said.
Despite officials imploring people to stay off the roads, interstates around Atlanta were clogged with cars early Monday. Elsewhere all over the South, cars were having trouble on the slippery streets and highways, with numerous slideoffs.
In Nashville, Tenn., 24-year-old Jay Rebisz described the roads as terrible, saying he'd seen many cars abandoned where they had spun out.
“With the economy being what it is, people are trying to make it to work no matter what,” said Rebisz. He and a friend operate a private snowplow and had been busy all day clearing out apartment complexes, parking lots and shopping centers.
Georgia was expecting up to 6 inches in the northern mountains from the powerful storm that was also dumping snow and ice in Mississippi, Alabama, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas. Sleet and freezing rain could last into Tuesday in Georgia and the Carolinas.
Highway crews were working to keep major roads passable. Georgia Department of Transportation spokesman Rick Parham said Monday morning that at least one lane was open in each direction on all major highways.
“Since it's going to be pretty cold over the next few days, we could see whatever accumulates sticking around for a few days,” National Weather Service meteorologist Daniel Lamb said.
Tim Loucks, general manager of the Pilot Truck Stop in the northwestern Louisiana town of Haughton, said he had an empty diner as truckers who slept on his lot during the night were pulling out.
“Interstate 20 is open, but it's moving slow,” Loucks said. “There's ice on the bridges and overpasses.”
Loucks said the situation was different for drivers trying to drive on local roads. “If you're off the main roads, it's a skating rink,” he said.
Icy roads were blamed in separate accidents Sunday that killed two people in northern Louisiana. Two others died in separate Oklahoma crashes: a woman whose car went off an icy road and into a pond in Tulsa County on Sunday and a man whose pickup slid off an interstate and hit a tree near Henryetta the next day.
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said workers had readied snow and salt trucks to help clear icy roads, and asked all residents to stay home through Monday unless it is imperative to travel.
Most canceled flights across the region had been scheduled to fly into or out of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world's busiest. The airport's long halls were nearly deserted on what would normally be a chaotic Monday morning.
For some whose flights made it to Atlanta, the sight of snow-covered runways was disorienting. Larry and Judy Keefauver, of Buffalo, thought their flight from Sacramento had landed somewhere else when they looked out the window.
“I have been flying (through Atlanta) since the early 70s and I've never landed on snow here ever,” Larry Keefauver, 62, said.
Auburn University students must go somewhere other than campus to watch the Tigers play in the national championship bowl game Monday. The university has canceled all viewing parties and other events planned as the state prepares for severe winter weather.
Classes were also canceled at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where the city used backhoes to clear roads because it has no snow plows.
“They aren't as good as plows, but they do a pretty good job,” said Mayor Pat Patterson, adding that some parts of the city got 8 inches of snow.
University worker Joel Weems said the city is virtually shut down.
“There's about six inches of snow in my yard and the streets still have a bunch of slush and ice,” Weems said. “Towns down here just don't have the equipment to deal with this much snow.”