By Noreen O'Donnell
(Reuters) - A dangerous storm that brought snow and drenching rains to the southwestern United States blamed for several road deaths is threatening Thanksgiving travel for millions of people in the eastern states, forecasters said on Saturday.
The storm is expected to bring heavy rain to the Southeast on Tuesday and then turn north and move up the East Coast, possibly disrupting travel through Wednesday, according to the meteorologists at AccuWeather.com.
"If the storm hugs the coast and develops to its full potential, it could be a flight nightmare, not only for travelers in the East, but also throughout the nation," AccuWeather.com's Evan Myers said.
The Thanksgiving holiday weekend is one of the most heavily traveled in the United States. Some 39 million people are expected to hit the roads from Wednesday to Sunday, centering around Thanksgiving on Thursday, the travel group AAA said earlier this week.
About 3 million people will fly to their destinations, according to AAA.
The rain and snow have already been linked to several deaths. It has stranded motorists and caused traffic accidents in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Texas.
Three people were killed in a multi-vehicle crash late Friday in icy conditions on Interstate 40 west of Amarillo, Texas, a state patrol dispatcher said.
In east-central New Mexico, a 4-year-old girl died when a vehicle she was riding in slid off an icy highway and turned over Friday afternoon, State Police Sergeant Emmanuel Gutierrez said. She was not wearing a seatbelt, he said.
In Oakland, California, a man was killed on Thursday when a power line fell and electrocuted him, according to the Contra Costa Times. Another man died trying to avoid debris in a roadway, the newspaper reported.
Early on Saturday morning near Sulphur Springs, Texas, the driver of a bus carrying Willie Nelson's band apparently lost control and crashed into a highway overpass support. One band member, Paul English, broke his hip in the accident.
The winter storm was expected to grind through the southern Plains states through Sunday night, bringing sleet and freezing rain, and in parts of northern Texas and the western half of Oklahoma light snow and frigid conditions, the National Weather Service said.
AccuWeather predicted the storm will hit coastal Texas and Louisiana on Monday, head east along the Gulf Coast on Tuesday and then expand northward.
The exact track of the storm as it heads up the East Coast Tuesday night into Wednesday night is still unknown and holds the key to whether the region will see dry weather, rain or snow, AccuWeather said.
The rain could be heavy enough to delay flights in New Orleans, Atlanta, Charlotte, North Carolina and other airports, AccuWeather reported.
(Reporting by Noreen O'Donnell in New York; Additional reporting by Kevin Murphy in Kansas City and David Bailey in Minneapolis; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Gunna Dickson and Eric Walsh)