NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Southeastern states were bracing Friday as snow began to fall from a storm that has already toppled Midwestern power lines, closed major highways, buried parts of the southern Plains in heavy ice and snow and left tens of thousands of people in the dark.
Snow and sleet began falling Friday in Tennessee, and forecasters said some parts of the Southeast could see up to a foot of accumulation.
The heaviest snow was expected in Arkansas near the Missouri state line, northern Tennessee near the Kentucky and Virginia borders and western North Carolina, according to the National Weather Service.
Mark Rose, a forecaster with the weather service's Nashville office, called it "a major winter storm for this part of the country — heck, for any part of it."
The storm left 13 inches of snow in the northern Texas Panhandle, where nearly all of Interstate 40 from the Texas-Oklahoma line to New Mexico was closed for part of the day.
Heavy ice brought down electrical lines and trees limbs, leaving more than 179,000 homes and businesses in Oklahoma without power Friday, according to the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.
Gov. Brad Henry requested a federal disaster declaration for all 77 Oklahoma counties.
"In some places, as far you can see there are hundreds of utility poles on the ground," said Andrea Chancellor, spokeswoman for Public Service Co. of Oklahoma. She said it could be five days before electricity is restored to all customers.
Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen declared a state of emergency and state workers were sent home around lunch in anticipation of the worsening weather. Many businesses followed suit.
States of emergency were also declared in Arkansas and parts of Virginia and schools closed early in northern Alabama.
In Western Kentucky, shoppers at Murray Home & Auto store snatched up every available sled in anticipation of a heavy snow, said store manager Chris Burgess. Others grabbed shovels, kerosene heaters and chain saws, mindful of another winter storm a year ago that caused widespread power outages in the region.
"They're trying to be prepared this time," Burgess said.
The Nashville area saw up to 3 inches of snow by late afternoon, and I-40 traffic crawled toward Nashville International Airport for miles because of an accident.
Snowfall was subsiding late Friday afternoon in Memphis after an estimated 3 inches had fallen. Most flights at Memphis International Airport were canceled, and Graceland stopped giving tours of the Elvis Presley home at midmorning.
Memphis officials worried because temperatures were forecast to remain below freezing overnight, posing a threat of icy highways and falling tree limbs.
General contractor Tom Baldwin, 59, said he cut loose his crew at a downtown Nashville building at noon to give them time to get home safely.
"I want to tell people to have some common sense out there," he said. "Only because you have big four-wheel-drive doesn't make you stop any quicker."
The steady snowfall didn't keep Jason Martin from delivering beer to Lonnie's Western Room in Nashville's Printer's Alley.
"When it snows, everyone goes out and buys milk and eggs — and beer," joked Martin, 37. "We're like the Pony Express."
Jeff Hooker, who manages a Piggly Wiggly supermarket in the Memphis area, said customers were waiting outside to buy groceries when the store opened at 7 a.m.
"People here in Memphis, if there's just a little flight of bad weather they think they're going to get snowed in for a week," he said.
The Texas Department of Transportation closed I-40 east and west of Amarillo on Friday but later reopened it. Downed power lines and icy, dangerous road conditions also temporarily closed a 50-mile stretch of I-44 southwest of Oklahoma City and parts of I-40 in far western Oklahoma and eastern New Mexico on Thursday.
The storm was good for business at the Days Inn and Suites in Guymon, Okla., where stranded travelers waited for road crews to clear U.S. Highway 54 of ice and snow, employee Rocky Bhagavan said. Sixteen of the hotel's 35 rooms were occupied at the motel in the Oklahoma Panhandle, he said — twice as many as usual.
"Most of the travelers decided to leave this morning. As soon as they got to the Texas border they had to come back," Bhagavan said.
Heidi Brandes, spokeswoman for the Salvation Army in Oklahoma City, said the organization's men's shelter has been full since the slow-moving storm moved into the area Thursday. She said some of the 90 men in the shelter are homeless and sought relief when temperatures dropped to the mid-20s. No deaths have been reported due to the cold.
Flights were canceled Friday morning at airports in Oklahoma City and Little Rock, Ark.
Arkansas State Police warned people who were driving to work on Friday to be prepared to be stranded. Spokesman Bill Sadler encouraged motorists to bring blankets, water and snacks with them and to line up a hotel room within walking distance or make other plans for an overnight stay.