By Colleen Jenkins
WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Reuters) - A deadly winter storm brought heavy snow, freezing rain and potentially historic accumulations of ice to the southeastern United States on Wednesday, causing thousands of power outages and disrupting early commutes, forecasters said.
The worsening storm stretched from eastern Texas to the Carolinas, and is likely to reach the Middle Atlantic states by late Wednesday, National Weather Service meteorologist Roger Edwards said.
"It's unusual to have an ice storm that far east in the Deep South," he said.
The wintry mix has already caused two weather-related traffic deaths in Mississippi, and three in northern Texas, authorities said.
More than 2,700 U.S. flights were canceled and hundreds more delayed early on Wednesday, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware.com.
A quarter to three-quarters of an inch of ice was expected in a broad section of Georgia, including metropolitan Atlanta. Some areas could see more than 1 inch.
The Interstate 20 corridor from north central and northeastern Georgia into South Carolina would be among the hardest hit by icy conditions, Edwards said.
Snowfall totals were expected to be unusually high in the region, with nearly 8 inches of snow forecast for Charlotte, North Carolina, and 9 inches for Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Edward Clay, 40, who lives in Greer, South Carolina, decided against driving to Asheville, North Carolina, Wednesday for his job as a construction project superintendent even though snow flurries were just beginning.
"I could get to Asheville easy," he said. "Getting back to South Carolina is the problem. It's going to be an all-around bad day to be on the road."
Government officials were quick to make plans to deal with the impact of the storm, following another two weeks ago that paralyzed Atlanta-area roads and forced more than 11,000 students in Alabama to spend the night at their schools.
Hundreds of schools and government offices across the South were closed on Wednesday, and power outages started to climb as the weather conditions that forecasters had warned about for days took shape.
About 59,000 Georgia Power customers were without power early on Wednesday. South Carolina emergency officials said about 4,000 residents in Aiken near the Georgia border were without power.
Some road accidents were reported, but there were no fatalities, officials said.
Conditions deteriorated overnight as a swath of the Deep South, from Alabama through South Carolina, was deluged with rain, sleet and snow, and residents prepared themselves for freezing rain and slick roads, Edwards said.
"The morning commute is just going to be horrendous," Edwards said, warning of impassable roads, traffic accidents and thick ice bringing down trees and power lines.
"Folks who are not accustomed to handling these conditions are best served by staying out of them - staying indoors, staying off the roads."
The last significant ice storm in Georgia was in January 2000, when up to half an inch of ice left more than 350,000 people without power, weather service meteorologist Dan Darbe said.
With the latest storm, "we're talking a much larger area and a much larger amount of ice", he said.
(Additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson, Harriet McLeod, David Beasley and Scott DiSavino; Editing by Catherine Evans and Bernadette Baum)