SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — A brutal winter storm dumped snow in Tallahassee, Florida, 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.
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 (7-meter) 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. The National Weather Service cited unofficial reports of up to 2 inches (5 centimeters) of snow. It was the city's first measurable snowfall since February 2010, and families with children flocked to Forsyth Park near the downtown historic district for snowball fights.
Across the Georgia-South Carolina line in Charleston, unofficial reports showed up to 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) of snowfall there, according to the weather service. There was enough snow outside Chris Monoc's house for his sons, ages 4 and 2, to go sledding a mile from Charleston'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 cancelled 500 flights Wednesday, and at least 1,700 more were cancelled Thursday. Interstate 95 was nearly an icy parking lot for almost all of its 200 miles (322 kilometers) in South Carolina. Troopers couldn't keep up with the number of reported wrecks which numbered in the hundreds.
In Tallahassee, Florida, Michigan transplant Laura Donaven built a snowman 6 inches (15 centimeters) 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.
The weather service said the winter storm will probably intensify into a "bomb cyclone" that could dump more than 8 inches (20 centimeters) of snow on the Boston area on Thursday and at least half a foot (15 centimeters) of snow in the New York City region.