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Atlanta area braces for dangerous ice storm

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A Georgia transportation sign warns motorists on Interstate 75 on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, in Kennesaw, Ga., about 20 miles north of metro Atlanta. A winter snow storm is blowing into Georgia in what the National Weather Service predicted to be “an event of historical proportions.” (AP Photo/David Tulis)

A Georgia transportation sign warns motorists on Interstate 75 on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, in Kennesaw, Ga., about 20 miles north of metro Atlanta. A winter snow storm is blowing into Georgia in what the National Weather Service predicted to be “an event of historical proportions.” (AP Photo/David Tulis)

Vehicles slowly make their way on a snow-covered Alabama state Route 35, on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, in Fort Payne, Ala. Residents woke to a blanket of snow that was expected to continue throughout the morning hours. (AP Photo/Hal Yeager)

A pair of walkers cross the Hudson Memorial Bridge as a tractor trailer truck prepare to cross the Tennessee River into Decatur, Ala., Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/The Decatur Daily, John Godbey)

Mayor of Atlanta Kasim Reed checks on progress at the Public Works North Avenue Facility as Atlanta prepares for another approaching winter storm on Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/ Atlanta Journal & Constitution, Curtis Compton)

Employee Brandy Aaron scrapes snow to make snow cream at Ralph’s Lil River Canyon Grocery and Grill as snow falls, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, in Fort Payne, Ala. Residents were waking up to a heavy blanket of snowfall that was expected to continue throughout the morning. (AP Photo/Hal Yeager)

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ATLANTA (AP) — Emergency management workers hunkered down in Atlanta waiting to spring into action as rain — along with temperatures — fell overnight, potentially leading to “catastrophic” ice conditions that were forecast to hit the region.

And in north Georgia, snow was falling early Wednesday.

Atlanta and the surrounding region dodged the first punch of a dangerous winter storm Tuesday, but forecasters warned that the second punch would likely bring a thick layer of ice and heavy winds that could knock out power to thousands of people and leave people stranded in their cold, dark homes for days.

Elected leaders and emergency management officials began warning people to stay off the roads, especially after two inches of snowfall caused an icy gridlock two weeks ago that left thousands stranded in their vehicles overnight. It appears many in the region around the state’s capital obliged as the streets and highways of metro Atlanta were uncharacteristically unclogged Tuesday.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed in a news conference at the Georgia Emergency Management Agency’s special operations center Tuesday evening implored people to get somewhere safe and stay there.

“The message I really want to share is, as of midnight tonight, wherever you are, you need to plan on staying there for a while,” Reed said. “The bottom line is that all of the information that we have right now suggests that we are facing an icing event that is very unusual for the metropolitan region and the state of Georgia.”

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 like “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.

This kind of language was first used in May 1999 for a tornado in Moore, Okla. Forecasters called it a “tornado emergency” to make sure the public knew it was not a typical tornado.

“I think three-quarters of an inch of ice anywhere would be catastrophic,” Jacks said.

But the Atlanta area and other parts of the South are particularly vulnerable because there are so many trees and limbs hanging over power lines. When the ice builds up on them, limbs snap and fall, knocking out power.

“There is no doubt that this is one of Mother Nature’s worst kinds of storms that can be inflicted on the South, and that is ice. It is our biggest enemy,” Gov. Deal said.

While only light rain fell in Atlanta on Tuesday, cities 40 miles northwest saw 2 to 3 inches of snow. The rain was expected to turn into sleet and freezing rain overnight.

More than 200 utility vehicles from Florida, North Carolina and other Southern states gathered in a parking lot near one of the grandstands at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The state had more than 22,000 tons of salt, 70,000 gallons of brine 45,000 tons of gravel and brought in 180 tons of additional salt and sand. The goal was to make sure at least two interstate lanes were available in each direction. Then material would be used on the most heavily used roads off the highways. Officials were also considering re-routing traffic in extreme circumstances.

“It’s certainly going to be a challenge for us. Ice is definitely different than snow,” state Transportation Commissioner Keith Golden said. “It is very difficult for us to plow ice.”

Hundreds of Georgia National Guard troops were on standby in case evacuations were needed at hospitals or nursing homes, and more than 70 shelters were set to open. President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Georgia, ordering federal agencies to help the state and local response during the storm. Deal said a priority for that request was generators.

Metro Atlanta, the economic engine of the South with the headquarters of Fortune 500 companies including Home Depot, UPS, Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola, resembled a ghost town. Schools were closed and grocery store shelves were bare of milk and bread.

State and local officials, chastened by tough criticism for their slow response to the Jan. 28 storm, were eager

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