SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP)— 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.
Forecasters warned that the same system could soon strengthen into a "bomb cyclone" as it rolls 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.
A winter storm warning extended from the Gulf Coast of Florida's "Big Bend" region all the way up the Atlantic Coast. Forecasters said hurricane-force winds blowing offshore on Thursday could generate 24-foot seas.
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 common to the Northeast.
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 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 number of reported wrecks which numbered in the hundreds.