MILLEDGEVILLE — Georgians stocked up on ice-melting chemicals, school systems closed, and road crews prepared to clear snow and ice from highways as a winter storm began bringing snow to the region Tuesday afternoon.
Light snow moved into parts of north Georgia by midmorning and began coating the metro Atlanta region by noon. Much of Georgia was under a winter storm watch for Tuesday and Wednesday, with some areas forecast to see as much as 3 inches of snow.
The threat of snow and ice had already stranded travelers at airports nationwide.
The airport hardest-hit by cancellations Tuesday was also the world's busiest: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where a total of 863 inbound and outbound flights had been canceled by 9 a.m. Tuesday, according to the flight tracking service FlightAware.
Nationwide, 2,796 flights within, into or out of the U.S. had been canceled by 9 a.m. EST Tuesday, according to statistics from FlightAware. Only a couple of hundred flights are canceled in the U.S. on a typical day.
In Atlanta, Pam Sullivan, 46, bundled up in a thick pink scarf as she walked to work downtown. She took the impending winter storm in stride.
"Well, it's wintertime," she said. "So we get the cold days and the not-so-cold days."
However, she expected the roads could be slippery if Atlanta received an inch or more of snow.
"You get one big mess with people colliding," she said.
Interstates in the downtown Atlanta area were clogged Tuesday afternoon with drivers who ended their workdays early. Cars moved slowly, and some wrecks had already occurred. Cars were at a virtual standstill on surface streets downtown, packed with people fleeing the icy mess.
Security guards and doormen at office buildings around downtown were coming outside — some without winter coats — to try to help direct clogged traffic.
Georgia Department of Transportation officials said that crews were working to clear snow and ice accumulations on interstates in the metro Atlanta, middle Georgia and northwest Georgia areas.
Transportation officials said they expected road conditions to worsen later in the day and to become spread over a larger area of the state. Officials urged Georgians to avoid any unnecessary driving — especially traveling after dark — until Wednesday.
People heading to work and class bundled up in the freezing weather. Chris Tran, a 22-year-old chemistry student, rode his bike to class at Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta. He was locking it to a rack dressed in two pairs of spandex pants and two spandex tops. He expects that he will be biking home through the snow — something that he's never done in Georgia.
"I think I'll have to," he said. "And if it gets too bad, I'll just ride MARTA."
Organizers were planning a large school-choice rally outside Georgia's Statehouse on Tuesday. They hoped around 1,000 people or more would attend, though it was unclear whether the approaching storm would make it difficult for students and other supporters to travel.
Michael Schulte, 23, was warming his hands outdoors as workers set up for the rally. He wore long johns under his jeans and multiple shirts to keep warm. He was looking forward to going inside the capitol and warming up.
"Right now I'm just hunkering down," he said.
At an Ace Hardware store in the north Georgia town of Cumming, snow shovels were in short supply, but manager Tom Maron said feed scoops — often used in barns — could be substituted.
"We're fixing to put the ice melt out, and we've got plenty of sand here to mix in," Maron said shortly before dawn.
At the Okefenokee Swamp in far south Georgia, the alligators were slowing down and burrowing into mud to stay warm, a park ranger said early Tuesday.
"Their metabolism slows down so they're able to not breathe as often, so they don't have to come to the surface as often," said Susan Heisey, a supervisory ranger at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
"They make burrows in the canal banks, sort of stay in the mud and just sort of have their nose tipped up to the surface of- the water so they can still breathe and move minimally," Heisey said. "These alligators have been on this earth a long time and they've made it through."
Other species of wildlife — such as gopher tortoises, snakes and frogs — were riding out the storm in underground tunnels, she said.
"They burrow underground and make these tunnels which can be quite long," Heisey said. "Snakes and frogs will go into these tunnels along with the Gopher tortoises."