ATLANTA — The mad rush began at the first sight of snow: Across the Atlanta area, schools let out early and commuters left for home after lunch, instantly creating gridlock so severe that security guards and doormen took to the streets to direct cars amid a cacophony of blaring horns.
Georgia State University student Alex Tracy looked on with amusement.
"My family is from up north and we're used to driving in the snow and stuff, and seeing everyone freak out, sliding and stuff, it's pretty funny," Tracy said.
A winter storm that would probably be no big deal in the North all but paralyzed the Deep South on Tuesday, bringing snow, ice and teeth-chattering cold, with temperatures in the teens in some places.
Many folks across the region don't know how to drive in the snow, and many cities don't have big fleets of salt trucks or snowplows, and it showed. Dozens of wrecks happened from Georgia to Texas. Two people died in an accident in Alabama.
"As I drove, I prayed the whole way," said Jane Young, an 80-year-old pastor's wife who was traveling in Austin, Texas, before dawn on her way to volunteer at a polling station when sleet began falling. "I said, 'Lord, put your hands on mine and guide me. This is your car now.'"
As many as 50 million people across the region could be affected by the time the snow stops on Wednesday. Up to 4 inches of snow fell in central Louisiana, about 3 inches was forecast for parts of Georgia. Up to 10 inches was expected in the Greenville, N.C., area, and along the state's Outer Banks.
On the Gulf Shores beaches in Alabama, icicles hung from palm trees. Hundreds of students in the northeastern part of the state faced spending the night in gyms or classrooms because the roads were too icy. Four people were killed in a Mississippi mobile home fire blamed on a space heater. New Orleans' merry Bourbon Street was oddly quiet as brass bands and other street performers stayed inside.
Lee and Virginia Holt of Wayne, Pa., walked into Cafe du Monde — a New Orleans landmark known for its beignets and cafe au lait — after finding the National World War II Museum closed because of the weather.
"We understand they don't have the equipment to prepare the roads," she said. Her husband added: "Nor the experience."
Mary McEneaney, who works in fundraising at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, left work around 1:30 p.m. and headed for her home about five miles away, a drive that generally takes about 20 minutes. On Tuesday, it took three hours.
"I had to stop and go to the bathroom at the hotel," she said. "At that rate I knew I wasn't going to make it until I got home."
At a hardware store in the Georgia town of Cumming, snow shovels were in short supply, but manager Tom Maron said feed scoops — often used in barns — could be substituted.
Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; Pensacola, Fla.; Virginia Beach, Va.; and New Orleans — popular warm-weather tourist destinations where visitors can usually golf and play tennis in shirt sleeves or light jackets this time of year — were expecting ice and snow on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Meanwhile, in the Midwest, dangerous cold continued to grip the region even as the storm moved south. Many schools closed for the second straight day. In Minnesota, forecasters said wind chills could reach 35 to 50 degrees below zero.
At Oak Mountain Intermediate School near Birmingham, Ala., principal Pat LeQuier said about 230 of the school's fourth- and fifth-graders and nearly all teachers and staff members were still on campus by late afternoon, and some could wind up spending the night since parents were stuck in traffic or at work.
"We have a toasty building, a fully stocked kitchen, and I'm not worried," LeQuier said.
In Savannah, residents braced for a winter whiplash, barely 24 hours after the coastal city hit a T-shirt-friendly 73 degrees. Less than a quarter-inch of ice and up to an inch of snow were possible in a city that has seen very little snow on its manicured squares in the past 25 years.
Savannah had 3.6 inches of snow in December 1989, a dusting of 0.2 inches in February 1996 and 0.9 inches in February 2010.
Phil Sellers leads walking tours rain or shine of Savannah's oak-shaded squares, bronze Civil War monuments and Victorian neighborhoods. But come ice and snow — both rare visitors here — he will stay inside.
"Usually what happens in Savannah is everything stops immediately when you first see a snowflake," he said. "Everyone's jaw drops."
At grocery store across the region, shoppers mostly cleaned out shelves of bottled water, bread, milk and boxed fire logs.
Nationwide, nearly 3,000 airline flights were canceled.
In Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp, the alligators burrowed into the mud to keep warm.
"Their metabolism slows down so they're able to not breathe as often, so they don't have to come to the surface as often," said Susan Heisey, a supervisory ranger at the national wildlife refuge. "These alligators have been on this earth a long time and they've made it through."