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.
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.
UPDATE 3:40 p.m.
Georgia Department of Transportation crews moved into South Carolina Thursday afternoon to help clear sections of I-95 near the state line, which had seen delays and congestion since the storm.
GDOT's Jill Nagel said the slow traffic is more than just a headache for drivers.
"When traffic is moving, it's less likely to freeze on the roadway," she said, "but when it comes to a standstill we're concerned about that icing again."
Sunshine helped melt much of the snow and ice Thursday, but Nagel said below-freezing temperatures would likely make conditions more dangerous overnight.
"Once the snow and ice starts to melt and then it freezes, it's very smooth looking, so it's hard to tell that it's ice and not just the roadway," she said.
Nagel said GDOT would continue to treat highways to prevent freezing. But she said delaying travel until the sun returns is the safest bet.
UPDATE 9:27 a.m
The winter storm has moved out of coastal Georgia, but local officials say it's still dangerous to travel there.
Below-freezing temperatures overnight hardened a few inches of snow and slush into slick black ice.
Many bridges and elevated roads have been closed since yesterday [[wed]] morning. Traffic remains backed up on I-95 at the Georgia-South Carolina line as trucks struggle over the icy road and crashes periodically close lanes.
The Savannah airport says it will remain closed until runways are safe. Most departing flights this morning are already canceled.
Most coastal school districts are closed for a second day. Some local governments plan to open at noon - when warmer temperatures will likely have melted much of the ice.
But officials say the safer roads this afternoon won't last long. They expect the melted snow to re-freeze overnight tonight, once again creating dangerous conditions.
1/3/18 4:46 p.m.
The snowfall is slowing down in Coastal Georgia. But officials are still urging people to stay indoors.
Chatham Emergency Management Director Dennis Jones says icy roads are "very dangerous" and will likely get worse.
“Any snow that melts will eventually turn into black ice during the nighttime hours, so with that, it's gonna create some hazardous weather conditions,” Jones said.
Temperatures are expected to drop into the 20s overnight in Savannah, with wind chills in the teens.
Many bundled up and ventured out to enjoy the unexpected day off. Harry Werner and Ymke Franssen were among them.
“It fits the city. It looks nice. It kind of fits the historical sites and things like that with the buildings and trees but it’s definitely not supposed to be like this,” Franssen said with a laugh.
Families drove from as far away as Florida to experience snow for the first time.
The cold temperatures could be both a blessing and a curse for agriculture. In a statement, Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said the cold weather is providing much needed chill hours for peaches and blueberries and it may help reduce the white fly pest population in produce and cotton areas of the state. He added that the extreme temperatures could also present challenges, including increased heating costs for poultry producers.
“Our Emergency Management Team is engaged within the GEMA network to assist with any livestock, equine or companion animal needs that may occur as a result of this winter weather,” Black said.
Police in Brunswick reported on Twitter early Wednesday that some area bridges had begun to ice up. There were some accidents on local roads and Brunswick police advised motorists to stay home.
The winter storm is threatening to dump snow and ice on parts of the U.S. South that rarely see flurries, let alone accumulation. The National Weather Service said a wintery mix of snow and freezing rain is expected along the coast, with possible accumulation in Savannah of up to two inches. The last time Savannah saw snow accumulation was February 2010.
On Tuesday, Governor Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for 28 counties, including Chatham and Glynn. Overnight temperatures plummeted to two degrees in the north Georgia mountains and 14 degrees in Atlanta. A winter storm warning remains in effect in Eastern Georgia until 7 pm Wednesday.
The winter weather is expected to affect air travel across the east coast. Delta is offering severe weather waivers for travelers flying through Savannah, Valdosta, Brunswick, and Augusta, as well as major airports in Florida, South Carolina and other locations along the east coast. Travelers can cancel a trip if the flight is cancelled or there’s a delay of 90 minutes or more. Travelers will get a refund on the unused portion of the ticket.