Atlanta aims to avoid repeat of epic, icy traffic jam

Lindsey Hodges shops at Kroger located off of Alps Rd. in Athens, Ga., Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017. A menacing winter storm approaching the South could bring freezing rain to states as far south as Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and up to 8 inches of snow in parts of North Carolina and Virginia, forecasters said. The storm also brings the threat of freezing rain to parts of the Deep South including Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. (John Roark/Athens Banner-Herald via AP)
Lindsey Hodges shops at Kroger located off of Alps Rd. in Athens, Ga., Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017. A menacing winter storm approaching the South could bring freezing rain to states as far south as Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and up to 8 inches of snow in parts of North Carolina and Virginia, forecasters said. The storm also brings the threat of freezing rain to parts of the Deep South including Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. (John Roark/Athens Banner-Herald via AP)

ATLANTA (AP) — Panicked shoppers emptied shelves of bread and milk, road workers began working 12-hour shifts, and governors in Alabama and Georgia declared states of emergencies ahead of a winter storm stalking the South.

Winter storm warnings were issued for parts of Alabama and Georgia, including Atlanta, and into the Carolinas and part of Virginia. Schools canceled classes in several states, and Alabama and Georgia issued emergency declarations.

The approaching storm is a significant threat for the Southeast, where cities and states have far fewer snowplows than up north, and even a thin coat of ice or snow can grind traffic to a halt.

In Atlanta, where memories of a catastrophic snow and ice storm in 2014 are still fresh, city leaders pleaded with motorists not to venture out onto slick highways. The earlier storm brought traffic to a standstill on metro Atlanta freeways, and office workers were forced to spend the night in their cars, stuck in the gridlock.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said plans were in place for schools, companies and governments to dismiss students and workers early to avoid a repeat of the 2014 storm, when thousands of commuters left at nearly the same time, contributing to the epic traffic jam.

“Our goal, including the goal of the state, is to have everyone off metropolitan Atlanta roadways by 4 p.m.,” Reed said. “We need you home by 4, we need you to leave the city in an orderly fashion.”

At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest airport, Delta Air Lines on Friday announced that 350 flights had been canceled ahead of the storm.

“We never close,” airport spokesman Reese McCranie said. “This is something we train for throughout the entire year.”

Nationwide, about 600 Saturday flights had already been canceled Friday afternoon, and 244 of them were at Atlanta’s airport, FlightAware.com reported. More than 90 Saturday flights were canceled at Charlotte Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, North Carolina.

A mix of rain and sleet was expected across parts of Georgia on Friday. Two to 4 inches of snow could cover much of the state by Saturday morning, forecasters said. Snow-removal trucks and dozens of road workers from south Georgia were moved north to help clear roads, the Georgia Department of Transportation said. Many workers were on 12-hour shifts.

Freezing rain was expected in Alabama, according to the National Weather Service.

Cheers went up at a suburban Birmingham elementary school when text messages carried the news on Thursday that there would be no classes on Friday.

“Up and down the hallways you could hear teachers screaming with excitement, even the custodians,” said Amanda Foster, who teaches first grade.

Saturday’s ceremonies formally marking the inauguration of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper have been canceled. Activities scheduled for Friday will go on as planned.

Shoppers were heeding the warnings and were out in force in search of staples like milk, bread and eggs.

Outside a Kroger grocery store in Durham, North Carolina, Alissa Miles was loading her car after stocking up on beer and hot dogs.

“I’m not expecting it to be something super terrible, but we do live in a place where the roads don’t get salted,” she said. “So we’re expecting to be stuck in the house for a couple of days.”

The storm was blamed for one death Thursday in Kentucky. Daniel Noble, 55, died after he rounded a curve in his pickup truck and slid into a rail fence about 14 miles south of the city of Jackson, authorities said.

Winter weather was also slamming parts of the West, prompting some dangerous conditions but also drawing skiers to the slopes.

In Colorado, heavy snow and strong winds raised the danger of avalanches. Snow in Boise, Idaho, reached 15 inches Thursday, breaking the previous snow-depth record of 13 inches from mid-1980s.

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Foreman reported from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Associated Press writers Jonathan Drew in Durham, North Carolina; Jack Jones in Columbia, South Carolina; Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama; and Adrian Sainz in Memphis, Tennessee contributed to this report.