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Atlanta freaks out before winter storm

Empty Shelves at Whole Foods in  Atlanta, GA (CNN)

Empty Shelves at Whole Foods in Atlanta, GA (CNN)

ATLANTA (CNN) — Paralyzing. Catastrophic. Historic. Crippling.

These are words that forecasters are using to describe the potential for a winter storm heading Atlanta’s way as it prepares for another spate of icy weather just two weeks after less than 3 inches of snow shut down the city.

“It certainly looks like it could be of historic proportions, especially in the last 10 to 20 years,” said National Weather Service forecaster Jason Deese.

Meteorologists will keep an eye across the Carolinas on Tuesday evening as the temperatures there will largely dictate Atlanta’s fate, he said. Low temperatures are expected to sink southwest out of the Carolinas, so if the mercury drops precipitously there, it could mean trouble for Atlanta in the form of an inch of ice, he added.

“You’ve got to get right around 30 and ideally into the upper 20s (for significant ice accumulation). That certainly could happen with this system,” he said. “As for how much ice, that’s the uncertain part.”

Regardless of what happens Tuesday evening, Deese said, Atlanta is sure to get between trace amounts and a quarter-inch of ice, which can debilitate travel and the power grid.

There is also a possibility of snow falling on the “backside of the system” Thursday, which would further complicate matters, and once the ice starts melting, travel could be further hampered by chunks of ice breaking off overpasses, something that happened during the recent winter storm in Charleston, South Carolina, Deese said.

“That’s going to create travel headaches as well, even after the storm is gone,” he said.

Governors in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and both Carolinas issued emergency declarations ahead of the weather. In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory said the storm was “very unpredictable,” with storm warnings extended northward early Tuesday as his government made plans to manage the inclement weather.

“Even within the last hour, we’re seeing changes in the weather predictions, which makes it very difficult to work on logistics,” McCrory told reporters in Raleigh. But he said he was happy with how his government dealt with the late January snowstorm, “and we expect the same type of coordination, activity and teamwork.”

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley dispatched additional Highway Patrol officers to help with the expected accidents and stranded motorists on state highways, her office announced. State workers and volunteers from the Red Cross and Salvation Army prepared to open shelters if needed.

And in Georgia, this storm is the first test for a 32-member severe weather task force created after the January 28 storm that led to blistering criticism of state and Atlanta-area leaders. Gov. Nathan Deal told reporters Monday the state was doing everything it could.

“We are making every effort to be prepared for these events, and I would simply say that we should all individually use extreme caution,” he said.

Atlanta’s city government announced its offices would be closed Wednesday, with only essential employees expected to report to work. Deal and other officials urged drivers to stay off the roads from Tuesday through midday Thursday.

A run on supplies

If you’re an Atlantan making a last-minute grocery run, here’s hoping you love corn and asparagus. Because that’s all that may be left on most shelves as residents stock up and hunker down for the ice storm.

Gone are the loaves of bread. The gallons of milk. The cans of beans and beer.

After snow so recently paralyzed Atlanta and embarrassed the state, residents and government officials said they aren’t taking any chances.

“I think we’re certainly ahead of the game this time, and that’s important,” Deal told reporters Monday. “We’re trying to be ready and prepared and react as quickly as possible.”

Deal declared a weather-related state of emergency for 88 counties as rain fell across Georgia, well before snow and sleet were expected. The Atlanta Public Schools and other systems across North Georgia announced they would be closed Tuesday and Wednesday.

Even before the first raindrops fell, Jagannathan Santhanam had decided to throw in the towel.

“I will work from home and keep my kids home, too,” the software developer said. “It was not fun, especially with family members stranded for more than 24 hours in different places during the last storm.”

Charles Davidson also opted for a similar strategy.

“My wife and I decided a few days ago that we were going to get groceries early in the day, and we’re going to stay in,” he said. “We’re going to stick around for the next two or three days.”

It took Davidson more than seven hours to get from Georgia Tech near downtown Atlanta to his home in Marietta, a northwest suburb.

Concern about ice’s impact on power

Officials are especially concerned about a possible ice storm, which has the potential of knocking out the power grid.

“When you’re talking about the amount of ice we’re looking at, it’s catastrophic,” said Aaron Strickland, Georgia Power Co.’s storm center manager. “What will happen is that the ice will build up on trees, trees will come down and take down the power lines. … So it is an event that we are extremely fearful of, but we’re preparing (by) bringing in outside help at this time.”

Snow, sleet and rain are in the forecast through Wednesday morning, with temperatures in the 30s. By Wednesday, ice on the roads could make driving “hazardous or impossible,” forecasters from the National Weather Service warned.

The city’s northern suburbs could get 1 to 2 inches of snow, with up to 8 inches blanketing the northeast Georgia mountains.

Because of last month’s debacle in handing the winter weather, much of the focus has been on Georgia, but ice and snow will threaten large chunks of the Deep South, from Texas to the Carolinas.

On Monday night, sleet fell in Texas, and as much as 3 inches fell in Arkansas. By Tuesday morning, snow was falling in northern Mississippi, northern Alabama, northern Georgia and northwest South Carolina.

Heavier precipitation is expected Tuesday night and Wednesday.

The storm also could bring snow as far north as Pennsylvania and New Jersey — areas more accustomed to the wintry mix — and Washington is bracing for nasty weather Wednesday and Thursday.

Flights affected throughout South

The system was taking its toll on air travel across the region.

Airlines announced nearly 1,200 flight cancellations Tuesday ahead of the storms. The greatest concentrations, according to Flight Aware.com, are in airports in Atlanta, Dallas and Charlotte, North Carolina.

When the last storm struck two weeks ago in Georgia, roads were gridlocked almost instantaneously as commuters fled Atlanta en masse. Thousands of children across northern Georgia spent the night in schools, and countless motorists endured commutes of more than 20 hours, if they were lucky enough to get home at all.

Snowed Out Atlanta, the Facebook group where Georgians asked for and offered help during the last storm, was ramping back up Monday.

The forum posted alerts about school closings and the possibility of power outages and tips on how to prepare for the storm.

And there were also — shall we say — more practical tips. One featured a drift packed with a variety of brews.

Says the caption: “The best part about snow is that it keeps my beer extra cold.”

There’s nothing like a silver lining.

CNN’s Todd Borek, Eliott C. McLaughlin, Marlena Baldacci, Jason Hanna, Catherine E. Shoichet and Ralph Ellis contributed to this report.

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