Deep South coated with snow, sleet and freezing rain


-- A swirl of sleet and freezing rain barreled through the Gulf States early Friday, carrying frigid weather to a region unaccustomed to the cold.

The storm system extended from Corpus Christi, Texas, through Louisiana, Mississippi and most of central Alabama, as forecasters predicted up to 5 inches of snow in scattered areas across the Deep South and along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Ice and snow accumulation on roads and bridges is expected to make travel dangerous, if not impossible, in some places through Friday morning, forecasters said. A winter storm warning remains in effect until midday Friday for all of the Texas Gulf Coast.

Forecasters predicted a wintry mix of snow and sleet would coat downtown Houston with about an inch of accumulation.

Heavier snowfall -- up to 3 inches -- will blanket areas west of the city.

In New Orleans, forecasters predicted mostly rain with a sleet mix in the city's northern districts and outlying neighborhoods.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency Thursday in anticipation of the weather, activating the state's Crisis Action Team to monitor possible hazardous conditions that could affect parts of the state over the next few days.

State government offices in 55 Louisiana parishes will be closed on Friday because of the wintry weather.

Southwest Airlines canceled all flights to Corpus Christi, Harlingen, and Houston Hobby airports in Texas, according to company spokesman Marilee McInnis. The carrier called off a total of 157 flights on Thursday, she said.

Continental Airlines said it suspended most of its operations from Houston Intercontinental Airport from Thursday afternoon through midday Friday because of the expected icy precipitation.

Houston pre-emptively decided schools will be closed Friday, according to school district spokesperson Sarah Greer Osborne.

The extreme weather has put unprecedented demand on the state's energy grid and put 50 power plants out of commission on Wednesday, leading to rotating outages and a 10% to 15% reduction in output. By Thursday, most of the plants had resumed functioning, said Terry Hadley, the state's utility commission spokesman.

The storm hit the Deep South as a previous storm system swirled out of the country after blanketing 30 states, from the center of the nation through the Northeast, with a mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain producing record-breaking accumulations in several Midwest locales.

The storm system dished perhaps the hardest blow to Chicago. O'Hare International Airport received 20.2 inches of snow, adding to the city's third-largest snowstorm on record, according to the Weather Service.

Shannen Park, who spent Tuesday night camped out at the Chicago airport, endured multiple cancellations, like many travelers stranded by the blustery weather.

"Geez, I'm getting home finally," Park said, as some flights resumed Thursday.

Chicago resident Guy Zalel said he "knew leaving Monday that the flights would be pretty bad."

More than 1,100 flights were canceled Thursday at O'Hare, while some 40 flights were called off at Midway airport due to the lingering effects of the storm.

Airport authorities encouraged travelers to check their airline's website or call ahead to check the status of their flights before going to the airport, said Gregg Cunningham, a spokesman for the Chicago Aviation Department. There were no delays reported at O'Hare or Midway Thursday evening.

Chicago-area public schools were expected to reopen Friday, officials said.

In Oklahoma, a sport utility vehicle skidded off a bridge and plunged 80 feet into a river along Interstate 44, killing at least three people, according to police spokesman George Brown.

Five medical evacuation helicopters and emergency dive teams responded to extract the eight people involved in the accident near Miami, Oklahoma. Five surviving men were taken to a level two trauma facility at St. John Medical Center in Tulsa, where they were treated for hypothermia.

In South Dakota, officials closed a 90-mile stretch of Interstate 29 from Watertown to the North Dakota border due to blizzard conditions, said state authorities, who reported numerous accidents and whiteout conditions along the highway.

The backside of the historic weather system was still powerful enough to drop several more inches of snow on Maine and New Hampshire on Thursday, the National Weather Service said