By Colleen Jenkins
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C., Feb 12 (Reuters) - A deadly winter storm packing ice, sleet, and heavy snow hit the southeastern United States on Wednesday, threatening road and air travel and widespread power outages, forecasters said.
The worsening storm stretched from eastern Texas to the Carolinas, and is likely to reach up into the Middle Atlantic states by late on Wednesday, National Weather Service meteorologist Roger Edwards said.
"It's unusual to have an ice storm that far east in the Deep South," he added.
President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration for Georgia, where the state government will be closed on Wednesday, and governors in other southern states declared weather emergencies.
Officials were quick to make plans for dealing with the weather after facing criticism when a storm two weeks ago paralyzed Atlanta-area roads and forced more than 11,000 students in Alabama to spend the night at their schools.
Conditions worsened overnight as a swath of the Deep South from Alabama through South Carolina was hit with rain, sleet, and snow, and residents were steadying themselves for freezing rain and slick roads, Edwards said.
"The morning commute is just going to be horrendous," Edwards said, warning of impassable roads, traffic accidents, and thick ice bringing down trees and power lines.
"Folks who are not accustomed to handling these conditions are best served by staying out of them - staying indoors, staying off the roads."
The last significant ice storm in the region was in January 2000, when up to half an inch (1.3 cm) of ice left more than 350,000 people without power, weather service meteorologist Dan Darbe said. With the latest storm, "we're talking a much larger area and a much larger amount of ice", he said.
The storm dumped 2 to 6 inches (5 to 15 cm) of snow in north Georgia on Tuesday.
But ice was the larger concern on Wednesday as a quarter to three-quarters of an inch (0.6 to 2 cm) was expected in a broad section of Georgia including metropolitan Atlanta. Some areas could see more than 1 inch (2.5 cm).
The Interstate 20 corridor from north central and northeastern Georgia into South Carolina would be among the hardest hit by icy conditions, Edwards said.
The storm has already caused two weather-related traffic deaths in Mississippi, and three in northern Texas, authorities said.
More than 2,500 U.S. flights were canceled and scores more delayed early on Wednesday, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware.com. (Writing by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Catherine Evans)