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Fierce ice storm paralyzes the South; tens of thousands lose power

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Much of the South on Wednesday again awoke again to the nastiness of a winter storm, needle-like freezing rain, growing piles of snow and biting temperatures that turned roads into a deadly, slippery mess and cut off power to tens of thousands of people.

The storm, which spread from Texas to the Carolinas, was described in near-apocalyptic terms by the National Weather Service, which in a morning memorandum labeled the weather “an event of historical proportions.” The service went on to use phrases such as “catastrophic … crippling … paralyzing” in describing the potential dangers.

At least six deaths have been reported in Texas and Mississippi. The storm will head north throughout the day, bringing from between six inches to more than a foot of snow as it moves through Washington, D.C., squeezing the New York metropolitan area and into New England.

“A major winter storm is affecting parts of the Southeast with dangerous ice and snow and is expected to intensify Wednesday evening as it moves up the Eastern Seaboard, affecting locations across the mid-Atlantic and Northeast. More than one inch of ice accumulation is possible from central Georgia into South Carolina through Thursday morning,” the weather service warned.

By Wednesday morning, Georgia Power reported more than 85,000 customers were without electricity in 471 separate outages. Outages in other states brought the tally to more than 175,000 customers without power.

Just two weeks ago, a storm stunned Atlanta, stranding thousands in vehicles in a region generally not accustomed to dealing with such adversity. This time, officials positioned equipment and spread salt on roads as a precaution. Roads were generally empty Wednesday morning as most people heeded the advice of their elected officials to stay off of the roads and out of the muck.

This season has already been the winter of discontent and it appears likely to get worse before spring breaks through the frozen ground. The Northeast has had a series of major storms, including two just days apart.

But the current storm is slightly different for the South. It has brought sleet, freezing rain and an ice storm, defined by the weather service as “damaging accumulations of ice ... expected during freezing rain situations. Significant accumulations of ice pull down trees and utility lines resulting in loss of power and communication.”

The difference between the two is of size and impact: Sleet is like a cold, but an ice storm is like the flu. The usual rule is that when more than a quarter of an inch of ice accumulates, it is an ice storm. It is often made worse by strong winds such as the gusts of more than 30 miles an hour recorded in parts of Georgia on Wednesday.

As the storm continued through the day, officials were bracing for results as bad as in 2000 when more than 500,000 homes and businesses were without power. Damage estimates were as high as $35 million.

The storms this year have already taken a bite out of the economy, hindering sales and probably preventing some people from finding jobs. January was the worst month on years for airline delays and cancellations.

By late morning on the East Coast more than 3,000 flights had been canceled Wednesday, according to Flightaware.com. Feeling the pain most was Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, which had more than 65% of its flights canceled. The Charlotte, N.C., airport had half of its flights canceled.

As the storm moves north, so will the airline delays. Airports in Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston have already canceled more than 1,000 flights for Thursday.

The weather brought slick roads to North Texas where at least four people died in traffic accidents. An accident involving about 20 vehicles was reported Tuesday along an icy highway overpass in Round Rock, just north of Austin.

In Mississippi, officials announced two weather-related traffic deaths.

In northeastern Alabama, two National Guard wreckers were dispatched to help clear 18-wheelers on Interstate 65.

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