Atlanta - A deadly winter storm gripped the south-eastern United States on Wednesday, crippling travel, knocking out power to 363 000 homes and businesses and encasing magnolia and palmetto trees in ice.
The weather was blamed for at least 13 deaths in the region, including three who were killed when an ambulance transporting a patient skidded off an icy road in Carlsbad, Texas, the Texas Department of Public Safety said.
Winter storm warnings and advisories were in place from Arkansas east to much of the Atlantic coast, the National Weather Service said. The storm is expected to sock the north-eastern United States in the next two days with up to 38cm of snow, it said.
Snow and freezing rain that were pummelling South Carolina and North Carolina created a dangerous commute for drivers in a hurry to get home as the snowfall got heavier and the ice thickened.
A possibly historic accumulation of ice as well as heavy snow was expected to add up to nearly 20cm of frozen precipitation for Charlotte, North Carolina, and 23cm were forecast for Spartanburg, South Carolina, meteorologists said.
More than 2.5cm of ice was possible from central Georgia into South Carolina by Thursday morning, according to forecasters.
Traffic on interstate highways ground to a halt, and at least one snow plough went off a North Carolina highway into a ditch. The icy gridlock was reminiscent of a snowstorm that shut down Atlanta just two weeks ago.
Todd Pekks, a chef at Duke University, was just 800m into his drive home to Raleigh when he began to skid so badly he gave up, his wife Sherri Pekks said.
He made his way back to work on foot, and returned to the kitchen, she said.
“He's definitely gone for the night. I wonder if he'll be able to make it back tomorrow,” Pekks said.
Fatal road accidents were reported in Mississippi and South Carolina. In Georgia, a man died of exposure near his home in Butts County, south of Atlanta, and North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory told CNN two people had died in weather-related incidents.
“People, just stay at home, be safe and take care of each other,” he said.
Governors declared states of emergencies from Louisiana to New Jersey, and hundreds of schools, colleges and offices throughout the region shut down. The basketball game between arch rivals Duke University and the University of North Carolina was called off.
More than 3 300 US flights were cancelled and about 2 800 delayed on Wednesday, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware.com. Another 3 700 flights were cancelled for Thursday, with about half of the flights to and from Washington and New York called off.
Hardest hit were Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta and Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina.
The US Department of Energy reported that 363 000 power customers were without electricity as of mid-afternoon. More than a third of them were in Georgia, where some residents may have to wait up to a week for power to be restored, said Georgia Power spokeswoman Amy Fink
In the path of the storm, the White House called off a Thursday event to mark the launch of My Brother's Keeper, a campaign to help young black men.
Washington city officials authorised a $15 snow surcharge for taxi rides to encourage cabbies to stay on the road. Some public transportation was cancelled.
Most motorists in Georgia, where thousands were stranded in their vehicles during the last weather front, stayed off the roads after a state of emergency was declared, Governor Nathan Deal said.
Vehicles that did venture out were soon coated with ice, their radio antennas looking like skewers of ice cubes, television images showed.
Shelters were opened in Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina to help those stranded by the storm.