An ice storm gripped the winter-weary South on Wednesday, knocking out power to a wide swath of the region as the outages nearly doubled by the hour, and forecasters warned the worst of the potentially "catastrophic" storm was yet to come.
From Texas to the Carolinas and the South's business hub in Atlanta, roads were slick, businesses and schools were closed and people hunkered down. Just hours into it, sleet, snow and freezing rain had encased trees, sending them crashing into power lines. More than 200,000 homes and businesses across the region were without power and the number steadily increased. The storm came in waves of snow, sleet and freezing rain and forecasters warned relief with warmer temperatures wasn't expected until Thursday at the earliest.
Officials and forecasters in several states used unusually dire language in warnings, and they agreed that the biggest concern was ice, which could knock out power for days. Winds, with gusts up to 30 mph in parts of Georgia, exacerbated problems.
In Atlanta, where a storm took the metro region by surprise and stranded thousands in vehicles just two weeks ago, tens of thousands of customers were reported without power. City roads and interstates were largely desolate.
The combination of sleet, snow and freezing rain was expected to coat power lines and tree branches with more than an inch of ice between Atlanta and Augusta. Other areas would see less than an inch.
In normally busy downtown areas, almost every business was closed, except for a CVS pharmacy.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, sounding a far more upbeat tone than two weeks ago, warned people not to become complacent as the storm came in waves.
"Thanks to the people of Georgia. You have shown your character," he said. During the last storm, Deal was widely criticized for being unprepared and the state became the butt of late-night jokes
In an early Wednesday warning, the National Weather Service called the storm "catastrophic ... crippling ... paralyzing ... choose your adjective."
The forecast drew comparisons to an ice storm in the Atlanta area in 2000 that left more than 500,000 homes and businesses without power and an epic storm in 1973 that caused an estimated 200,000 outages for several days. In 2000, damage estimates topped $35 million.
Eli Jacks, a meteorologist with National Weather Service, said forecasters use words such as "catastrophic" sparingly.
"Sometimes we want to tell them, 'Hey, listen, this warning is different. This is really extremely dangerous, and it doesn't happen very often,'" Jacks said.
He noted that three-quarters of an inch of ice would be catastrophic anywhere. But the Atlanta area and other parts of the South are particularly vulnerable: Many trees and limbs hang over power lines.