ATLANTA — 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 and heeded forecasters’ unusually dire warnings to stay home, thousands of cars were backed up on 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 at least a half-foot of snow Thursday to the already sick-of-winter mid-Atlantic and Northeast.
At least 11 deaths across the South 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 altogether because the storm would move in quickly.
“It seemed like every other car was getting stuck, fishtailing, trying to move forward,” said Caitlin Palmieri, who drove two blocks from her job at a crafts store in downtown Raleigh before getting stuck. She left her car behind and walked back to work.
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, likening her journey to the blizzard scene in 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.”
Raleigh city spokeswoman Jayne Kirkpatrick had no estimate of how many vehicles had been abandoned and was unable to say whether motorists might be stranded on the road overnight.
“If we find anyone that is stranded that needs water or food or whatever we can do for them,” city crews will help, Kirkpatrick said. “We hope it won’t be too much longer before it’s no longer a problem.”
Forecasters warned of a potentially “catastrophic” storm across the South with more than an inch of ice possible in places. Snow was also forecast, with up to 3 inches possible in Atlanta overnight and much higher amounts in the Carolinas.
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 North Carolina around 100,000. 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.
For the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast, the heavy weather was the latest in an unending drumbeat of storms that have depleted cities’ salt supplies and caused school systems to run out of snow days.
The Raleigh area could get up to 4 inches of snow. Washington, D.C., could see around 8 inches, as could Boston. New York City could receive 6 inches. The Philadelphia area could get a foot or more, and Portland, Maine, may see 8 or 9 inches.
In Atlanta, which was caught badly unprepared by the last storm, area schools announced even before the first drop of sleet fell that 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.
“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,” said Matt Altmix, who was out walking his dog in Atlanta. “But it’s justified.”
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who was widely criticized over his handling of the last storm, sounded an upbeat note this time.
“Thanks to the people of Georgia. You have shown your character,” he said.
Amy Cuzzort, who spent six hours in her car during the Atlanta traffic standstill in January, said she would spend this storm at home, “doing chores, watching movies — creepy movies, ‘The Shining’” — about a writer who goes mad while trapped in a hotel during a snowstorm.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory urged people to charge their cellphones and find batteries for radios and flashlights because the storm could bring nearly a foot of snow in places such as Charlotte.
“Stay smart. Don’t put your stupid hat on at this point in time. Protect yourself. Protect your family. Protect your neighbors,” McCrory said.
Kathy Davies Muzzey of Wilmington, N.C., said she hid the car keys from her husband, John, because he was thinking about driving to Chapel Hill for the Duke-North Carolina basketball game. He has missed only two games between the rivals since he left school in the late 1960s. His wife made the right call: The game was postponed.
“He’s a fanatic — an absolute fanatic,” she said.
In an warning issued early Wednesday, National Weather Service called the storm across the South “catastrophic … crippling … paralyzing … choose your adjective.”
Meteorologist Eli Jacks noted that three-quarters of an inch of ice would be catastrophic anywhere.
However, the South is particularly vulnerable: Many trees are allowed to hang over power lines for the simple reason that people don’t normally have to worry about ice and snow snapping off limbs.
Three people were killed when an ambulance careened off an icy West Texas road and caught fire. On Tuesday, four people died in weather-related traffic accidents in North Texas, including a Dallas firefighter who was knocked from an I-20 ramp and fell 50 feet. In Mississippi, two traffic deaths were reported.
Also, a Georgia man apparently died of hypothermia after spending hours outside during the storm, a coroner said. In North Carolina, a woman was killed Tuesday when her car slid off a snow-covered road.
Associated Press writers Ray Henry, Jeff Martin and Peter Prengaman in Atlanta; Martha Waggoner, Michael Biesecker and Emery P. Dalesio in Raleigh, N.C.; Bruce Smith in Charleston, S.C.; Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala.; and Russ Bynum in Savannah, Ga., contributed to this report.