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Storm kills 11 as more winter havoc hits South

Traffic along Independence Boulevard crawled along the slick roadway in Charlotte, N.C.

Davie Hinshaw/The Charlotte Observer via Associated Press

Traffic along Independence Boulevard crawled along the slick roadway in Charlotte, N.C.

ATLANTA — 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 the last time, thousands of cars lined the slippery, snow-covered interstates around Raleigh, N.C., and short commutes turned into hours-long journeys.

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As the storm glazed the South with snow and freezing rain, it also pushed northward along the Interstate 95 corridor, threatening to bring more than a 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.

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 because the storm would move in quickly.

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, who is three months pregnant, drove a few miles in about two hours and decided to park and start walking, wearing dress shoes and a coat that wouldn’t zip over her belly. With a blanket draped over her shoulders, she made it home more than four hours later, comparing her journey to the blizzard scene from the movie ‘‘Dr. Zhivago.’’

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‘‘My face is all frozen, my glasses are all frozen, my hair is all frozen,’’ the mother of two and Chicago native 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.’’

Caitlin Palmieri drove two blocks from her job at a bread store in downtown Raleigh before getting stuck. She left her car behind and walked back to work. ‘‘It seemed like every other car was getting stuck, fishtailing, trying to move forward,’’ she said.

Forecasters warned of a massive storm across the South with more than an inch of ice possible in places. Snow was forecast overnight, with up to 3 inches possible in Atlanta and much higher amounts in the Carolinas.

As the day wore on, power outages climbed. Ice combined with wind gusts up to 30 miles per hour 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 100,000 people in North Carolina were without power. Some people could be in the dark for days.

As he did for parts of Georgia, President 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.

Three people were killed when an ambulance careened off an icy West Texas road and caught fire. A chain-reaction crash shut down the four-lane Mississippi River bridge on Interstate 20 at Vicksburg, Miss., and a tanker leaked a corrosive liquid into the river. No one was injured.

On Tuesday, four people died in weather-related traffic accidents in North Texas, including a Dallas firefighter who was knocked from an I-20 ramp and fell 50 feet.

In Mississippi, two traffic deaths were reported. Also, a Georgia man apparently died of hypothermia after spending hours outside during the storm, a coroner said. In North Carolina, a woman was killed Tuesday when her car slid off a snow-covered road.

In Atlanta, which was caught unprepared by the last storm, streets and highways were largely deserted this time. Before the first drop of sleet even fell, area schools announced 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.

For the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast, the heavy weather was the latest in a drumbeat of storms that have depleted salt supplies and caused school systems to run out of snow days.

The nation’s capital could get up to 8 inches of snow. New York City could see 6 inches.

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