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Freezing Rain, Snow Blanket South as Major Winter Storm Takes Shape

A rare and dangerous winter storm covered much of coastal Georgia, South Carolina and Florida with ice and snow Wednesday, and is now poised to bury the mid-Atlantic and Northeast in as much as a foot of snow.

(CN) - A rare and dangerous winter storm covered much of coastal Georgia, South Carolina and Florida with ice and snow Wednesday, and is now poised to bury the mid-Atlantic and Northeast in as much as a foot of snow.

In Tallahassee, Florida, snow fell for the first time in nearly three decades; meanwhile, in Charleston, S.C., South Carolina Electric & Gas reported 5,875 power outages statewide Wednesday afternoon , with 5,322 customers in Charleston County without power related to more than 20 incidents.

The storm is expected to intensify dramatically Wednesday night and could become the most intense winter storm to barrel into the Mid-Atlantic states and New England in decades, forecasters said.

In anticipation, blizzards warnings have been issued for the Virginia Tidewater and eastern Massachusetts and Maine, and could be extended to other parts the eastern seaboard as the storm continues to develop. Forecasters are predicting that hurricane-force winds blowing offshore on Thursday could generate 24-foot seas.

As it is, almost all of the U.S. east coast is under some form of winter storm warning. And the National Weather Service says that once the storm passes the east will be lashed by the bitterest cold of an already frigid winter season.

In South Carolina Wednesday morning, officials encouraged residents to make preparations and hunker down. Significant winter storms are problematic in the South because they are so rare and few municipalities are prepared for them. The last major snow storm in the region was in 1989.

Unlike communities in the north, local cities and town along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts simply don't maintain fleets of snow plows. Some towns don't even have a single plow attachment to attach to a municipal vehicle.

Road salt is also a rare commodity in the Lowcountry and officials have warned that even major roads may be impassable for a day or more after the storm moves up the coast.

A spokeswoman for South Carolina Electric & Gas said Wednesday the utility is bracing for more power outages as fallen tree limbs snapping power lines are increasingly likely.

The situation is much the same in northern Florida and Southeastern Georgia where the storm and related vehicular accidents have lead to the closure of scores of bridges and roads, including portions of three major major interstates -- Interstate 10 in Florida, and Interstates 16 and 95 in Georgia.

As much as four inches of snow is expected to fall in portions of those two states.

Coastal flood and high surf advisories are in place from the Jacksonville, Florida area up to the North Carolina/South Carolina border. There is a gale warning for the offshore waters, with a small craft advisory for near-shore waters in both northern Florida and Georgia.

The last major snowstorm to strike the Southeast occurred between Dec. 22 and Dec. 24, 1989. After paralyzing the citrus industry in northwest Florida, it moved across Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, dumping 15 inches of snow in some locations.

In Charleston, where residents were still recovering from Hurricane Hugo, a category 4 storm that made landfall in South Carolina that September, the winter storm was forecast to leave behind just over an inch of snow. However, when all was said and done, a depth of 8 inches of snow was measured at Charleston International Airport.

That was an inch deeper that previous record set during the "Great Southeastern Snowstorm" of February 1973.

In Virginia, salt was already being applied to the steps and sidewalk outside the John Marshall Courthouse in downtown Richmond, Wednesday afternoon as the city prepared for the incoming storm.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency for much of the state by mid-afternoon, and as much as 3 inches of snow were expected to to fall in the Commonwealth before sunrise Thursday morning. Chilling temperatures, with a forecast high of 31 degrees and a low of 10 degrees, are expected to freeze whatever falls and create even more dangerous conditions Thursday evening.

“With this forecast in mind, all Virginians should take the necessary precautions now to ensure they are prepared for the travel disruptions, power outages and other threats to health and safety that could arise during this significant weather event,” McAuliffe said in a written statement.

The governor went on to encourage Virginia residents to stay indoors, keep their pets inside, and stay warm.

Brad Kutner, in Richmond, Va., contributed to this report.

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