Storm slams coastal South with most snow in nearly three decades

Ramon Martinez takes advantage of little car traffic to pull a sleigh filled with his children Amy and Anthony down Bull Street toward Monterey Square, in Savannah, Ga. Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018. Snow started falling late Wednesday morning in the Savannah area shutting down the city. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News via AP)

7-day forecast

Thursday: 29/13Friday: 31/17Saturday: 33/19Sunday: 40/35Monday: 48/35Tuesday: 49/32Wednesday: 44/30Source: WRCB-TV, Channel 3

SAVANNAH, Ga. - A brutal winter storm smacked the coastal Southeast with a rare blast of snow and ice Wednesday, hitting parts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina with their heaviest snowfall in nearly three decades.

The Tennessee Valley was spared of any snow, but people in the area still felt the effects of the unusually cold weather.

Many local school districts closed their doors in order to keep children from having to wait for buses in the frigid cold, said Patty Phillips, spokeswoman for Bradley County Schools. Some districts that did not close were still on winter break; they start next week.

Several schools in Marion County experienced cold weather-related damage, WRCB News Channel 3 reported. Pipes burst at South Pittsburg and Monteagle Elementary schools, and Whitwell Elementary had no heat.

Heating safety tips

Keep all combustibles (newspapers, cloth, furniture) at least three (3) feet away from stoves, fireplaces, portable heaters and space heaters.Keep portable heaters at least three (3) feet away from walls as well.Children and pets should be supervised at all times when space heaters are in use.Resist the temptation to place clothes or other materials on or near space heaters to “dry them out.” You may get distracted and forget about them.Use kerosene heaters with care, especially when refueling them. Always use the proper grade of kerosene, never gasoline and other fuels. Refuel them in a well-ventilated area – preferably outside – and only when the heater is completely cool.If you have a coal or wood-burning stove or a gas-burning cabinet heater, or any other built-in space heater, have it inspected by a qualified commercial repair company.Keep wood-burning stoves clean and repaired as often as necessary.Have your chimney inspected by a professional at the start of the heating season and cleaned if necessary.Have your central-heating system inspected and cleaned once a year and whenever you suspect a problem.Check the flues of your gas water heater or furnace for corrosion and obstructions that could present fire hazards.Misused extension cords are a fire hazard. Plug only one appliance into an extension cord. Don’t run extension cords across doorways or under carpets or pinch them under or behind furniture.Make sure you have at least one working smoke alarm on each level of your home, and if you heat your home with any kind of open flame, such as with natural gas or wood-burning stove, protect yourself from the silent killer - carbon monoxide — by having a carbon monoxide detector on each level of your home.Source: Chattanooga Fire Department

Winter weather driving kit

Ten items to include in a winter weather driving kit:Blankets, coats, hats, bootsNon-perishable food items and drinking waterExtra medications and a first-aid kitAbrasive material, such as sand or cat litter, and a shovelJumper cablesCell phone and chargerFlashlight and warning triangle or flaresIce scraperWasher fluidSource: AAA – The Auto Club Group

photo People attend to their vehicle on Interstate 26, near Savannah, Ga., Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018. A brutal winter storm dumped snow in Tallahassee, Fla., on Wednesday for the first time in nearly three decades before slogging up the Atlantic coast and smacking Southern cities such as Savannah and Charleston, South Carolina, with a rare blast of snow and ice. (AP Photo/Robert Ray)

Marion County school officials did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The Chattanooga Fire Department has seen an increase in structure fires in the last couple of weeks, said Bruce Garner, fire department spokesman.

Heating appliances are the No. 2 cause of home fires, he said. This is because people do whatever they can to stay warm by using portable heaters and "maxing them out in an effort to stay warm."

"They make mistakes by placing it too close to things that can burn," Garner said, "and they're making mistakes by plugging in these heaters into extension cords and overloading the circuits, because the heaters, in some cases, are staying on continuously."

Further south along the coast, forecasters warned the winter storm could strengthen into a "bomb cyclone" as it rolled up the East Coast, bringing hurricane-force winds, coastal flooding and up to a foot of snow. At least 17 deaths were blamed on dangerously cold temperatures that, for days, have gripped wide swaths of the U.S. from Texas to New England.

Schools in the Southeast called off classes just months after being shut down because of hurricane threats, and police urged drivers to stay off the roads in a region little accustomed to the kind of winter woes that are common to the Northeast.

A winter storm warning extended from the Gulf Coast of Florida's "Big Bend" region all the way up the Atlantic coast. In Savannah, snow blanketed the city's lush downtown squares and collected on branches of burly oaks for the first time in nearly eight years. William Shaw, a Savannah native, used baby steps to shuffle along a frozen road from his home to the post office.

"It almost seems the town is deserted just like in the last hurricane," said Shaw, 65. "There's no one on the street. It's got a little eerie feeling."

Dump trucks spread sand on major streets in Savannah ahead of the storm and police closed several bridges, overpasses and a major causeway because of ice.

By the time the morning's dreary sleet and rain turned to fluffy snow, Savannah came out to play. Families with children flocked to Forsyth Park near the downtown historic district for snowball fights. The National Weather Service recorded 1.2 inches of snow - Savannah's first measurable snowfall since February 2010 and the first that exceeded an inch in 28 years.

Across the Georgia-South Carolina line in Charleston, the weather service reported 5 inches as the snow was winding down at 5 p.m. That's the most snowfall in Charleston since December 1989, and plenty for Chris Monoc's sons, ages 4 and 2, to go sledding outside their home near the city's iconic Ravenel Bridge.

"They probably will be teenagers the next time something like this happens, and that's kind of sad," Monoc said. "But we'll enjoy it while it is here."

Airports shut down in Savannah, Charleston and elsewhere as airlines canceled 500 flights Wednesday, and at least 1,700 more were canceled for today Thursday. Interstate 95 was nearly an icy parking lot for almost all of its 200 miles in South Carolina. Troopers couldn't keep up with the reported wrecks, which numbered in the hundreds.

In Tallahassee, Fla., Michigan transplant Laura Donaven built a snowman 6 inches tall. The city tweeted that snow fell there for the first time in 28 years.

"I made a snowball and threw it at my dad," said Donaven, a 41-year-old hair salon owner.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency through Friday for 28 counties. School systems on the Alabama coast waived uniform requirements so students could bundle up.

Florida's largest theme parks announced that water attractions such as Disney's Typhoon Lagoon, Universal Orlando's Volcano Bay and SeaWorld's Aquatica were closed. Temperatures were running well below normal for this time of year, and the lows are expected to hover right around freezing.

In Prairieville, La., Valerie Anne Broussard struggled overnight to keep warm in a house that is being rebuilt after the 2016 floods that hit the small community southeast of Baton Rouge. Her home has exterior walls and floors but no insulation, no central heating and only a few working electrical outlets. Eggs that she left on the kitchen counter froze and broke open.

"It's like a camping trip that I didn't sign up for," said Broussard, who's been huddling with her 8-year-old daughter, newborn baby and boyfriend in a bedroom warmed by space heaters.

Staff writer Rosana Hughes contributed to this story.

Tips to prevent pipes from freezing

Allow for a small drip of water. Running water through the pipe — even at a trickle — helps prevent pipes from freezing.Keep your pipes warm. Open cabinet doors to expose pipes to warmer room temperatures to help keep them from freezing. If the pipes in your home are prone to freezing, consider wrapping your pipes in foam rubber insulation. Cover exterior spigots with a faucet insulator or cover to help protect them from the cold air.Know how to shut off your water. Locate your main water shut-off valve. You may want to tag or label it so you do not have to search for it in an emergency. This is important to know in a non-emergency situation as well, like making a repair on a small leak on a toilet or sink.Tips if your pipes do freeze:Shut off the water immediately. Before attempting to thaw pipes, turn off the main shut-off valve.Thaw pipes with warm air. You can melt the frozen water in the pipe by warming air around it with a hair dryer or space heater. Be sure not to leave the space heater unattended and avoid the use of kerosene or open flames.Source: Chattanooga Fire Department