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Ice storm causes another traffic jam in the South

Thursday - 2/13/2014, 3:10am  ET

Traffic along Independence Boulevard near Hawthorne Lane crawls along the slick roadway as a winter storm hits Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/The Charlotte Observer, Davie Hinshaw) MAGS OUT; TV OUT; NEWSPAPER INTERNET ONLY

CHRISTINA A. CASSIDY
Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) -- 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. In Georgia, authorities reported several injuries from snow sledding crashes.

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 drove a few miles in about two hours and decided to park and start walking.

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 former Chicago resident 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."

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