Frozen South: Could be days before thaw comes


Published: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 8:05 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 8:05 a.m.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — It could be days before icy, treacherous conditions improve for areas of the South hit by a wintry blast that sent cars sliding off the road, emptied grocery shelves and had officials nervously watching ice-laden powerlines and tree limbs.

Meanwhile, New York City was about to confront its third snowstorm in less than three weeks, a day after Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration admitted a series of mistakes in its handling of a Christmas weekend blizzard and promised immediate changes. The National Weather Service issued a winter storm watch from Tuesday evening through Wednesday afternoon, with the heaviest snowfall expected overnight.

In the South, snow ranging from several inches to more than a foot Sunday and Monday blanketed states from Louisiana to the Carolinas — a region where many cities have only a handful of snow plows, if any. And more misery was on the way: The snow began turning to freezing rain in numerous areas, and low temperatures threatened to turn roads that may have thawed icy overnight.

"I had God with me this morning!" Yolanda Hill, manager of a Shell station north of Columbia, said of her drive to work. "I drove in the middle of the street, but, hey, I'm here."

Freezing rain followed the snow in many spots, turning major highways into ice rinks and coating pine trees and power lines.

"If you're off the main roads, it's a skating rink," said Tim Loucks, manager of the Pilot Truck Stop in Haughton, La.

The storm shut down most cities and towns, closed many businesses, and canceled most flights at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the world's busiest. At least nine people were killed in weather-related traffic accidents.

In South Carolina, the winter storm moved out of the area early Tuesday but left thousands without power.

Most of North Carolina remained under a winter storm warning. Kym Littlejohn was heeding the governor's call for people to stay home.

"The house is warm, we've got plenty of food, and we can watch TV," said Littlejohn, who was snowbound in her Charlotte home Monday after about five inches fell in her neighborhood. "As long as we don't lose power, we'll be fine."

Conditions were unlikely to improve anytime soon. Temperatures should stay below freezing for days, and more snow is predicted. That means treacherous travel conditions could persist until Wednesday or beyond.

"The problem here is that they're not used to it, so the equipment and the sanitation removal and the snow removal is not really geared for this kind of situation," said Tino Grana, 48, of New York City, who traveled to Atlanta to sell art at a downtown trade show.

Atlanta, which got 4 to 7 inches, has just eight snow plows. The city hired a fleet of 11 privately run trucks to help spread salt and gravel.

The storm system was expected to spread north to Ohio and could hit the snow-weary Northeast later in the week. A Christmas blizzard dumped more than 2 feet of snow on New York City and other parts of the region, crippling holiday travel and nearly shutting down major cities.

The National Weather Service issued a winter storm watch for the Big Apple from Tuesday evening through Wednesday afternoon, calling for the city and its suburbs to get between 6 and 12 inches of snow.

The heaviest snow fell in parts of Tennessee that received as much as 13 inches.

The 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, South Carolina and Tennessee declared emergencies. Schools and colleges called off classes for a second day Tuesday.

South Carolina troopers worked nearly 2,000 wrecks Monday, state Highway Patrol Sgt. Kelley Hughes said. More were expected overnight as the slush on major highways was freezing again. Like many southern states, South Carolina has limited equipment to fight frozen roads.

In all, it has about 800 pieces, and that's even using graders to smooth asphalt to push away slush along with snow plows and salt spreaders.

"You have no traction," Hughes said. "You're just rolling the dice by even going out."

In Georgia, the storm forced inauguration ceremonies for newly elected Gov. Nathan Deal to be moved inside from the state Capitol steps. Arkansas officials planned to move their inauguration indoors Tuesday.

Drivers struggled to stay on slippery pavement, and roads were littered with abandoned vehicles. Some motorists got out in the middle of the interstate to push their cars up ice-covered ramps.

"Towns down here just don't have the equipment to deal with this much snow," said Joel Weems, a worker at the University of Mississippi.

At Blackhawk Hardware in Charlotte, owner Jim Wilkerson was hoping for a Tuesday delivery of shovels and ice melt. There was only one problem: the warehouse is in snowy Atlanta, and as of Monday afternoon couldn't even get enough workers in to load trucks.

"We've had about 1,000 calls, but we ran out of ice melt, shovels and sleds by the time we opened on Sunday," he said. "We could have sold 5,000 shovels if we'd had them."

But the latest storm also offered kids — and some adults acting like kids — a rare chance to play in the snow.

"I'm trying to have a snowball fight with my friend," said 15-year-old Connor Ormond of Columbia, S.C., as he trotted to a friend's house, snowball in hand. "This is the most snow I've ever seen!"

In Memphis, 21-year-old Ronni Jupson said the roads weren't as bad as she feared they would be.

"I love snow, I'm not going to lie," she said. "I got really nostalgic. I'm just sad that I have to be an adult and work."

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Contributing to this story were Associated Press writers Dorie Turner, Jason Bronis, Ray Henry, Debbie Newby and Greg Schreier in Atlanta; Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala.; David Brandt and Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Miss.; Alan Sayre in New Orleans; Kristin M. Hall in Nashville, Tenn.; and Murray Evans in Oklahoma City.

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