Storms slam U.S. Southeast as bitter cold drags on

A woman stops to photograph the frozen Josephine Shaw Lowell Memorial Fountain in New York, U.S., January 3, 2018.

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – Winter storms swept up the U.S Southeast toward New England on Wednesday as snow, freezing rain and strong winds added to record-shattering cold that had much of the eastern United States in its grip.

The wintry mix and low wind chills could cause widespread power outages and leave roads icy, making commuting treacherous for millions of Americans from northern Florida to southern Virginia, the National Weather Service said in a series of warnings.

Some schools and universities in those states were closed on Wednesday in anticipation of the storm. Many flights out of the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport in Georgia and Tallahassee Airport in Florida were canceled.

The weather service said its Tallahassee office measured a snow and sleet accumulation of 0.1 inch (2.5mm) on its roof early in the day, the first time Florida’s capital has had snow in nearly 30 years.

The service said travel in northeastern Florida was likely to be difficult and dangerous.

Two to 3 inches of snow was expected in northeastern Florida, coastal Georgia and South Carolina, according to early morning forecasts, said weather service meteorologist Bob Oravec.

Some Florida and Georgia residents shared images on social media of light snow accumulating.

“So a #SnowDay in #Florida. We know hurricanes. Snow? Not sure what to do here. How do you luge?,” wrote one Twitter user, @thejalexkelly.

On Tuesday, Florida Governor Rick Scott urged residents in the north of the state to brace themselves for the cold. He said cold weather shelters have either opened or would be opened in 22 of the state’s 67 counties.

Some coastal areas of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia could ultimately receive up to 6 inches (15 cm) of snow, along with an accumulation of ice, while parts of New England could see 12 to 15 inches (30-38 cm) of snow and wind gusts of 35 miles per hour (55 km per hour) by the end of week, the weather service said.

Late on Tuesday, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for 28 of the state’s 159 counties.

As the storm bears down, an arctic air mass will remain entrenched over the eastern two-thirds of the country through the end of the week, forecasters said. The record-low temperatures were to blame for at least eight deaths in Texas, Wisconsin, West Virginia, North Dakota and Michigan over the past several days, officials said.

A large swath of the Midwest was under a wind chill warning on Wednesday as places like Cleveland and Indianapolis had temperatures in the wind of 5 to 20 degrees below zero in Fahrenheit (minus 20 to minus 29 degrees Celsius), while the Deep South faced deep-freeze temperatures that threatened crops and pipes, the weather service warned.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Jonathan Oatis)

Coastal Florida and S. Carolina urged to evacuate as Matthew takes aim

People line up to fill their cars with gas in anticipation of Hurricane Matthew, in Coral Springs, Florida,

By Letitia Stein and Harriet McLeod

TAMPA, Fla./CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) – Millions of people along the U.S. Southeast coast were urged on Wednesday to evacuate and prepare for Hurricane Matthew as the potentially devastating storm took aim at Florida and South Carolina.

Matthew, currently pummeling the Bahamas, was forecast to begin lashing Florida with fierce winds, storm surges and heavy rain late on Thursday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said. It has the potential to be the first major hurricane to make landfall in the United States since Wilma in 2005.

Governor Rick Scott urged those in vulnerable areas to evacuate early, even if orders had not yet been issued.

“We must prepare to be hit by a devastating hurricane,” Scott told a news conference, noting that a small wobble in Matthew’s path could hugely impact the state.

The governors in Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia have all declared states of emergencies.

Matthew, currently a major Category Three storm, was carrying maximum sustained winds around 120 mph (195 kph) on Wednesday morning, according to the Miami-based NHC.

It was likely to strengthen slightly in the coming days, the NHC added, saying it was too soon to predict where Matthew was likely to do the most damage.

“When a hurricane is forecast to take a track roughly parallel to a coastline, as Matthew is forecast to do from Florida through South Carolina, it becomes very difficult to specify impacts at any one location,” the NHC said in an advisory.

“Only a small deviation of the track to the left of the NHC forecast could bring the core of a major hurricane onshore within the hurricane warning area in Florida. However, a small deviation to the right could keep the hurricane-force winds offshore,” it said.

Florida’s governor activated an additional 300 members of the state National Guard on Wednesday, adding to 200 already summoned the day before.

People queue as they flock to the supermarket to take care of last minute shopping in anticipation of Hurricane Matthew, in Coral Springs, Florida,

People queue as they flock to the supermarket to take care of last minute shopping in anticipation of Hurricane Matthew, in Coral Springs, Florida, U.S. October 5, 2016. REUTERS/Henry Romero

Several school districts had canceled classes for Thursday and Friday, and some were releasing students early on Wednesday.

In South Carolina, about a quarter of a million residents were expected to evacuate from coastal areas.

“If you do not leave, you are putting a National Guardsmen’s or a law enforcement officer’s life on the line,” Governor Nikki Haley said.

As thousands began to evacuate vulnerable areas in South Carolina on Wednesday, drivers reported gridlock delaying traffic for hours. Schools and county government offices in 26 of the state’s 46 counties closed through Friday.

The city of Charleston handed out sandbags and shovels. Gasoline stations in the area posted “out of gas” signs as cars lined up to fill up the tank, but state officials said they know of no significant shortages.

The judge overseeing the murder trial of a Georgia father accused of intentionally leaving his toddler son in a hot car to die in 2014 canceled court for Thursday afternoon and Friday due to the storm.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Tom Brown)