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Ahead of winter storm, Obama declares emergency in Georgia

A travel advisory sign advised motorists Tuesday on a highway in in Atlanta.

Davis Turner/Getty Images

A travel advisory sign advised motorists Tuesday on a highway in in Atlanta.

ATLANTA (AP) — In a dire warning Tuesday, forecasters said a potentially ‘‘catastrophic’’ winter storm threatened to bring a thick layer of ice to Georgia and other parts of the South, causing widespread power outages that could leave people in the dark for days.

Many people heeded the advice to stay home and off the roads, leaving much of metro Atlanta desolate during what is typically a busy morning commute. While only rain fell in the city, places 40 miles northwest saw 2 to 3 inches of snow.

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When asked to elaborate on the ‘‘catastrophic’’ warning, Brian Hoeth, a meteorologist at the service’s southern regional headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, said forecasters were talking about an ice storm that happens only once every 10 to 20 years for the area. Forecasters predicted crippling snow and ice accumulations as much as three-quarters of an inch in area from Atlanta to central South Carolina. Wind gusts up to 30 mph could exacerbate problems.

Aaron Strickland, emergency operations director for Georgia Power, said the utility is bringing in crews from Florida, Texas, Oklahoma and Michigan. Strickland, who has spent 35 years with Georgia Power, said he’s never seen an inch of ice in metro Atlanta.

‘‘I've seen people forecast it, but it’s never come,’’ Strickland said. ‘‘And I'm hoping it don’t this time.’’

President Barack Obama declared an emergency in Georgia, ordering federal agencies to help with the state and local response.

The quiet streets were a stark contrast to the scene just two weeks earlier when downtown roads were jammed with cars, drivers slept overnight in vehicles or abandoned them on highways. Students camped in school gymnasiums.

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‘‘It looks like this time it’s not going to be bad until everyone’s home,’’ said Dustin Wilkes, 36, of Atlanta, who was one of the few people headed to the office.

Atlanta has a painful past of being ill-equipped to deal with snowy weather. Despite officials’ promises after a crippling ice storm in 2011, the Jan. 28 storm proved they still had many kinks to work out.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal indicated Monday that he and other state officials had learned their lesson. Before a drop of freezing rain or snow fell, Deal declared a state of emergency for nearly a third of the state and state employees were told they could stay home. He expanded the declaration Tuesday to more than half the state’s counties.

Schools canceled classes, and Deal urged people who didn’t need to be anywhere to stay off the roads. Tractor-trailer drivers were handed fliers about the weather and a law requiring chains on tires in certain conditions.

‘‘We are certainly ahead of the game this time, and that’s important,’’ Deal said. ‘‘We are trying to be ready, prepared and react as quickly as possible.’’

Tony Hardy said he was trying to get out of the incoming weather. He lives at a homeless shelter and said he fell three times on ice during the last storm. This time, he said planned to shelter in his sister’s house.

‘‘It’s going to last for a couple of days,’’ he said.

The storm hit other parts of the South as well. In northeastern Alabama, slick roads were causing wrecks.

Michelle Owen, of Mt. Pleasant, Tenn., was driving north on Interstate 65 near Cullman, Ala., when she hit an icy patch on a bridge. Her sport-utility vehicle and a trailer it was pulling fishtailed, sending her 18-year-old son Tyler through the rear window and on to the car that was atop the trailer.

‘‘He wound up on top of the Mustang we were hauling,’’ Owen said. He suffered only minor injuries.

In Texas, a Dallas firefighter responding to an accident died after falling from an icy highway overpass. Crews responded to numerous accidents across the region.

South Carolina, which hasn’t seen a major ice storm in nearly a decade, could get a quarter to three-quarters of an inch of ice and as much as 8 inches of snow in some areas.

Nearly 900 flights were canceled Tuesday at airports in Atlanta, Dallas and Charlotte, N.C., according to tracking service FlightAware.

On Monday, the Georgia governor was doing many things differently than he had last month. He opened an emergency operations center and held two news conferences before the storm. In January, Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed did not hold their first news conference until hours after highways were jammed.

When the Jan. 28 storm hit, Deal was at an awards luncheon with Reed, who was named a magazine’s 2014 ‘‘Georgian of the Year.’’

Reed had just tweeted: ‘‘Atlanta, we are ready for the snow.’’

This time, the mayor made no such predictions. Instead, he said he was in contact with school leaders and the city had 120 pieces of equipment to spread salt and sand and plow snow. The National Guard had 1,400 four-wheeled drive vehicles to help anyone stranded.

‘‘We are just going to get out here and, flat out, let our work speak for itself,’’ Reed said.

Some residents are already taking note of officials’ change in attitude for this storm. Kevin Paul, a barber, sat in an empty shop watching TV coverage of the storm Tuesday. Paul was critical of the response from Deal last month.

‘‘I think that they should have done better,’’ Paul said. ‘‘I think they were preoccupied with other things.’’ But Paul noted Deal seems to be paying far more attention this time.

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Associated Press writers Kate Brumback, Ray Henry and Jeff Martin contributed to this report.

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