Winter storm hits US South with rare snowfall

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ATLANTA, Jan 6 (Reuters) - A storm packing heavy snow, sleet and freezing rain hit the U.S. South on Friday, bringing winter weather to a region unaccustomed to it and leading to traffic snarls and widespread school closures.

As much as 8 inches (20 cm) of snow and 1 inch (3 cm) of sleet was expected to fall on a large swath of the United States from northeast Louisiana to southern Pennsylvania, according to the National Weather Service.

The service issued winter storm warnings stretching from Louisiana, across the South and into the East Coast. Police from Oklahoma and Arkansas reported scores of accidents on roads where a few inches of snow had fallen.

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Dogs walk through the snow during a spring snow storm in Boston, Massachusetts April 4, 2016.

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

People walk through Times Square during a snow storm on January 7, 2017 in New York City.

(Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

A man sweeps the street after snow fell in Manhattan, New York City, U.S. December 17, 2016.

(REUTERS/Kevin Coombs)

Semi-truck driver Don Kerns removes chains from his truck during record rain and snow outside Lakeview, Oregon, U.S., January 5, 2017.

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A snowman stands in Times Square following a morning snow in Manhattan, New York City, U.S. December 17, 2016.

(REUTERS/Andrew Kelly)

A man skis under a snowfall in Central Park during a winter storm on January 7, 2017 in New York.

(EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

A general view of snow covered seats at New Era Field before a game between the Buffalo Bills and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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Snow falls in the streets of Chicago, United States on December 11, 2016.

(Photo by Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Siblings (L-R) Leo, Max and Zoe Zavrachy, on vacation from Ireland, ride down a snow covered hill on Boston Common during a snow storm on the second day of spring in Boston, Massachusetts March 21, 2016.


(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

A person crosses Delancey Street during morning snow in Manhattan, New York City, U.S. December 17, 2016.

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A worker clears the snow from the crosswalk in Times Square, Manhattan, New York City, U.S. December 17, 2016.

(REUTERS/Andrew Kelly)

A person walks over the Brooklyn Bridge during morning snow in Manhattan, New York City, U.S. December 17, 2016.

(REUTERS/Andrew Kelly)

Snow is cleared from the Donner Pass rest area at Donner Pass summit during a winter storm, near Truckee, California, U.S. January 7, 2017.

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People walk under a snowfall as they visit Central Park during a Winter storm on January 7, 2017 in New York.

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People walk under a snowfall as they visit Central Park during a winter storm on January 7, 2017 in New York.

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Children play under a snowfall in Central Park during a winter storm on January 7, 2017 in New York.

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A woman falls down as people walk under a snowfall as they visit Central Park during a winter storm on January 7, 2017 in New York.

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People walk amid a snowfall in Central Park during a Winter storm on January 7, 2017 in New York.

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A snow boarder prepares his gear at the Mount Rose Highway summit during a winter storm near Incline Village, Nevada, U.S., January 7, 2017.

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Motorists travel through heavy snow on the Mount Rose Highway during a winter storm near Incline Village, Nevada, U.S., January 7, 2017.

(REUTERS/Bob Strong)

A person prepares to throw a snowball at their companion during a winter snow storm in Medford, Massachusetts, U.S. January 7, 2017.

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Marine One blows up a cloud of snow as it lands on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 7, 2017.

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Two dogs play in the snow during a winter snow storm in Medford, Massachusetts, U.S. January 7, 2017.

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A pedestrian walks through the snow during a winter storm in Medford, Massachusetts, U.S. January 7, 2017.

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

People walk through Central Park during a snow storm in New York City, U.S. January 7, 2017.

(REUTERS/Stephanie Keith)

People walk through Central Park during a snow storm on January 7, 2017 in New York City.

(Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

A woman plays under a snowfall in Central Park during a winter storm on January 7, 2017 in New York.

(EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

People walk through Times Square during a snow storm on January 7, 2017 in New York City.

(Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

People walk along The Mall in Central Park during a snow storm on January 7, 2017 in New York City.

(Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

A snowboarder rides over a ridge of snow in the afternoon sunlight on the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of year at Hunter Mountain ski area in Hunter, New York, U.S., December 21, 2016.

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People walk through Central Park following morning snow in Manhattan, New York City, U.S. December 17, 2016.

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A young Native American man rides his horse through the snow near the Oceti Sakowin camp as "water protectors" continue to demonstrate against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, U.S., December 4, 2016.

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Snow falls in the streets of Chicago, United States on December 11, 2016.

(Photo by Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Footsteps can be seen on a recently cleared sidewalk during a spring snow storm in Boston, Massachusetts April 4, 2016.

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A pedestrian crosses the road during a snow storm on the second day of spring in Boston, Massachusetts March 21, 2016.

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Snow falls in the streets of Chicago, United States on December 11, 2016.

(Photo by Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

A woman with an umbrella walks through the snow during a spring snow storm in Boston, Massachusetts April 4, 2016.

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

A cyclist passes pedestrians on a sidewalk on 12th Avenue in the Manhattan borough of New York City as snow falls February 15, 2016.

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A woman stands on a snow covered path at Central Park in New York, U.S., January 6, 2017.

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Snow falls in the streets of Chicago, United States on December 11, 2016.

(Photo by Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 11: Snow falls in the streets of Chicago, United States on December 11, 2016. (Photo by Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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"If you don't have to travel, don't travel," said Matthew Grantham, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Alabama. Conditions will worsen after dusk on Friday, he added.

The heaviest snowfall was expected for Friday night into Saturday with southern Virginia and north-central North Carolina being the hardest-hit areas, the service said.

Ahead of the winter storm, Atlanta residents packed into stores to stock up on essentials.

"I shouldn't have waited to the last minute," said Showanda Torres, 29, of the East Atlanta Village neighborhood, as she pushed her 3-year-old son in a shopping cart at a grocery store.

"The shelves are getting picked clean," she said.

The storm also affected U.S. air travel. As of 2:30 p.m. (1930 GMT), there were about 370 flight cancellations at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, one of the nation's busiest, according to tracking service FlightAware.com.

City officials called for staggered departures to avoid Friday evening traffic congestion. Schools were asked to release students at lunchtime.

The move followed a disastrous response to winter weather in January 2014, when thousands of commuters sat in gridlock for hours on frozen highways around Atlanta and many children were stuck at schools.

States of emergency were declared for 79 counties in Georgia and all of Alabama. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson shut state offices for non-essential personnel.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper also declared a state of emergency as the storm is expected to bring significant snowfall to his state, particularly in the central region.

The hazardous weather has forced the postponement of ceremonial inauguration events scheduled this weekend for Cooper, who has already taken office.

"The number one thing is making sure the people of North Carolina are safe," Cooper told a news conference on Friday morning. "You can do that by staying home."

(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, Laila Kearney in New York and Letitia Stein in Tampa; Writing by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by John Stonestreet and Marguerita Choy)

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