ATLANTA — A pre-winter storm that roared through the Deep South and coated half of North Carolina and portions of Virginia in snow pushed northward on Saturday, leaving motorists to brave potentially icy roads and utility crews trying to restore heat and light to thousands.
Forecasters were warning that the slush created during daylight would turn to ice from temperatures dropping below freezing, creating black ice on roads, bridges and other elevated surfaces.
“That catches people more off guard than when you see snow,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Moneypenny of the Raleigh, North Carolina, office.
Before Friday, the forecast for North Carolina called for little more than an inch of snow for the central counties with more expected for the higher elevations. The frigid temperatures behind a cold front combined with moisture off the Gulf of Mexico to bring the unusual wintry weather to parts of the South.
By Saturday, Burnsville had reported 14½ inches of snow. The Hendersonville area had 12 inches and Asheville recorded 8 inches of snow. Across the South, preliminary reports to the National Weather Service showed up to 10 inches of snowfall in northwest Georgia, with 7 inches of accumulation in parts of metro Atlanta. Another 10 inches of snow was reported in Anniston, Alabama, while up to 7 inches were reported in Mississippi. Rare flurries were even reported in New Orleans.
“It’s very, very abnormal and rare that we would get totals like that this time of year,” said Sid King, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in the Atlanta area. “It’s really not even winter yet. I would not be surprised if we broke a lot of records.”
By Saturday evening, Duke Energy was reporting 22,340 customers without power in North Carolina, down from more than 39,000 earlier in the day.
A winter storm warning was scheduled to expire at 7 p.m. Saturday for parts of Virginia. Richmond had 3½ inches of snow, as did Prince Edward. Virginia State police reported hundreds of crashes blamed on icy weather.
Temperatures forecast for Sunday weren’t favorable for melting the snow, according to forecasters. Highs across much of North Carolina were not expected to get out of the 30s on Sunday, and after a brief warm up on Monday, a second round of cold air was likely to stall the melting.
At the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which sees more passengers annually than any other airport in the world, spokesman Reese McCranie said more than 400 flights were cancelled Saturday. That’s after nearly 1,200 cancellations Friday.
Not everyone was anxious to flee. Members of a central Florida family found their way to Atlanta specifically to witness the white drifts.
“It’s beautiful,” said Tim Moss, while his two sons and wife threw snowballs at each other near a McDonald’s parking lot early Saturday. He said the family — including his mother — made a spontaneous decision late Friday to leave 80-degree weather in Florida and drive seven hours to see snow for the first time.
“A lot of people who live here are staying in,” said Moss. “They don’t want to get out in it. But we want to get out and run around in it.”
More than 334,000 homes and businesses were still without electricity Saturday afternoon in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. About 235,000 of those still in the dark were in Georgia.
Southern Pine Electric Co-operative had more than 10,500 customers without power Saturday in south Mississippi. The co-op had more than twice that many outages at the storm’s peak, utility spokesman Brock Williamson said. He said getting everyone’s electricity restored could take days.
In Atlanta, a fallen power line was blamed for electrocuting a man late Friday. Bystanders tried to warn the man before he walked into the dangling live wire, Atlanta police Sgt. John Chafee said Saturday. He said it was unclear if the wire was downed because of the icy weather.
A freeze warning was in effect Saturday for parts of northern Florida, southeast Alabama and southwest Georgia. The weather service said freezing temperatures can harm vulnerable plants and animals.
Parts of the Northeast and New England are also expecting a share of the snowfall this weekend.