By Jonathan Landrum Jr., Associated Press
Snowfall shrouding much of the Deep South began tapering off early Saturday, but freezing temperatures kept roads slick and thousands without electricity throughout the region while planes remained grounded at the world’s busiest airport.
Forecasters warned that moisture on the roadways could freeze and cause black ice to form. The National Weather Service said that while snow flurries would end by midday in areas including metro Atlanta, temperatures at or below freezing could cause transparent layers of thin ice to form on bridges and other elevated roadways.
The frigid temperatures behind a cold front combined with moisture off the Gulf of Mexico to bring unusual wintry weather to parts of the South.
Preliminary reports to the weather service showed up to 10 inches (25 centimeters) of snowfall in northwest Georgia, with 7 inches (18 centimeters) of accumulation in parts of metro Atlanta. Another 10 inches (25 centimeters) of snow was reported in Anniston, Alabama, while up to 7 inches (18 centimeters) 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.”
But the snow wasn’t expected to outlast the weekend. King said warming temperatures and sunny skies should melt most of it in time for shivering Southerners to return to work and school Monday.
Officials at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which holds the world record for annual number of passengers, said delays and cancellations were expected.
“Passengers should monitor their airline’s media channels for flight info,” the airport said via Twitter. Airport spokesman Reese McCranie said more than 400 flights were cancelled Saturday morning.
Not everyone was anxious to flee, though. 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.”
The snowstorms knocked out electricity to thousands across the South. More than 382,000 homes and businesses were still without electricity Saturday in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Southern Pine Electric Co-operative, which had nearly 19,000 customers without power Friday in south Mississippi, said restoration could take several days.
Snowfall and icy roads in North Carolina on Friday closed government offices and schools, sent cars sliding off the road and altered the governor’s travel plans.
Forecasters said heavy snow was falling in the mountainous western part of the state with up to 6 inches likely in areas including Asheville. A winter storm warning was in effect through Saturday morning for western counties.
Accumulations of 6 inches (15 centimeters) were reported in Mississippi and northern Georgia, while at least 5 inches (13 centimeters) fell in Alabama. Rare snow flurries were spotted in New Orleans. Motorists were urged to stay off the road in Louisiana for fear of ice.
The weather band also brought a rare snowfall to parts of South Texas.
“It’s the first snow of the season and any time you even mention snow in the South, you’re going to get people a little panicky,” said David Nadler, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s office south of Atlanta.
The weather service said the snow is expected to move into the Mid-Atlantic, parts of the Northeast and New England this weekend.
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.
Highway department officials were monitoring the elevated roadways and bridges that stretch across much of south Louisiana, warning that motorists to stay home if possible. Some highways were shut down Friday, as snow fell in cities and towns that have little experience with it. Truckers were urged to stay off of Interstate 10 in Mississippi.
Short, squat snowmen — some already melting by Friday afternoon — dotted yards and parks around Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Josh Black, a 30-year-old LSU graduate student, took photos of one tiny snowman outside the State Capitol building near the gravesite of former Louisiana Gov. Huey Long.
Black, who hails from the Toronto, Canada, area, chuckled about southern Louisiana’s reaction to the snow.
“They canceled school this morning, which is funny to me, for an inch of snow that is going to melt in an hour,” he said, smiling. “This is like May or October where I’m from.”
Associated Press writers Jeff Martin and Don Schanche in Atlanta and Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama, contributed to this report.