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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Winter weather 2016-2017 -- snow, ice and sleet
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Winter weather 2016-2017 -- snow, ice and sleet

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 woman walks in the snow at Times Square in New York U.S., January 31, 2017.

(REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

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

(REUTERS/Kevin Coombs)

A young child smiles while catching snow flakes on his tongue during snow flurries in New York, U.S., January 31, 2017.

(REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

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

(REUTERS/Jim Urquhart)

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 woman walks through snow as it falls in New York City, U.S., January 31, 2017.

(REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)

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

(Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

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.

(REUTERS/Andrew Kelly)

A woman walks through snow as it falls in New York, U.S., January 31, 2017.

(REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

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.

(Bob Strong / Reuters)

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

(EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

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

(EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

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

(EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

(EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

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

(EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

(REUTERS/Bob Strong)

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.

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

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.

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

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

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

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.

(REUTERS/Mine Segar)

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

(REUTERS/Andrew Kelly)

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.

(REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

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.

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

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

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

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.

(REUTERS/Mike Segar)

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

(REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

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)

A man walks in the snow at Times Square in New York U.S., January 31, 2017.

(REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

New England Patriots fans are seen standing in the snow, sleet, and freezing rain in anticipation of seeing their team at city hall plaza during Super Bowl LI victory parade in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., February 7, 2017.

(REUTERS/Barry Chin/Pool)

BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 13: A woman and her grandchilden sled on Boston Common following a winter storm February 13, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. Another winter storm has brought heavy snow and wind to the region. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 13: A woman feeds pigeons near the Boston Common following a winter storm February 13, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. Another winter storm has brought heavy snow and wind to the region. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 13: A worker uses a tractor to plow the sidewalks around the Boston Common following a winter storm February 13, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. Another winter storm has brought heavy snow and wind to the region. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
LYNNFIELD, MA - FEBRUARY 13: A snow plow works to widen a street during a snow storm February 13, 2017 in Lynnfield, Massachusetts. Another winter storm has brought heavy snow and wind to the region. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 12: Ross Wilson, 9, of Boston and his brother, Sam, 7, take advantage of the snow as they sled down a hill on the Boston Common in Boston on Feb. 12, 2017. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
QUINCY, MA - FEBRUARY 9: An owl toughs out the blizzard sweeping through the region on a branch in the Squantum neighborhood of Quincy, MA on Feb. 9, 2017. (Photo by Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
QUINCY, MA - FEBRUARY 9: Snow and ice coat the window of an inbound MBTA Red Line train at Quincy Central station in Quincy, MA on Feb. 9, 2017. MBTA trains kept running as a blizzard swept through the region. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Pedestrians walk up a street on Beacon Hill during white-out, blizzard-like conditions in a winter nor'easter snow storm in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Residents dig out following a winter snow storm in the Boston suburb of Wakefield, Massachusetts, U.S. February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Surfers take advantage of wind and waves from a winter snow storm in Gloucester, Massachusetts, U.S. February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
A man clears snow off his vehicle following a winter snow storm in Somerville, Massachusetts, U.S. February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
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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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