By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - A rare blast of snow, sleet and ice hit the U.S. South on Tuesday, prompting three states to declare a state of emergency, closing the New Orleans airport and causing chaos on roads for drivers unaccustomed to the dangerously slick conditions.
The southern cold snap is part of an arctic front that has put much of the Northeast and northern Plains under warnings and advisories for severe wind chills. Temperatures in parts of those regions could feel as cold as minus 30 Fahrenheit (minus 34 Celsius) on Tuesday, the National Weather Service said.
Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina each declared a state of emergency, telling motorists to stay off the roads.
"Residents should not overreact but should make plans now to ensure they are prepared for prolonged freezing conditions and icy roadways," Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant said.
The last flight left New Orleans at about 11 a.m. local time (1700 GMT) on Tuesday and its Louis Armstrong International Airport was then closed to commercial traffic ahead of the predicted ice storm. Authorities also shut the 24-mile (39-km) Causeway Bridge, which spans Lake Pontchartrain, because of icy conditions.
Residents and tourists excited by the novelty of the conditions took photos of icicles hanging from the wrought-iron balconies of the city's historic French Quarter.
Temperatures are forecast to hit a low of 23 degrees Fahrenheit (-5 Celsius) in New Orleans on Tuesday night and the city could see its first snowfall in years.
"This is pretty rare in New Orleans," Mike Efferson of the National Weather Service Office in Slidell, Louisiana, said of the conditions.
"This only happens about every 10 years."
Schools and government offices across a wide swath of the country were closed. Airlines canceled or delayed thousands of flights, and officials closed roads as conditions worsened.
North Carolina and South Carolina were expected to get the most snow, while the heaviest ice accumulation was forecast from Louisiana to the Carolinas, the weather service said.
Temperatures 10 to 20 degrees colder than normal were expected to continue for much of the eastern United States. In Washington, the National Gallery's skating rink was closed, with officials saying it was too cold for skaters to be out on the ice.
Jury selection in the corruption trial of a former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin was suspended because of the weather.
"We're getting a bit of everything," said Jody White, a police sergeant in Opelousas, Louisiana. "It's cold. The sleet is coming down in patches."
In Alabama, two people died and five others were hospitalized after a seven-car pileup on an ice-covered bridge near Montgomery, said Robyn Litchfield, an Alabama Department of Public Safety spokeswoman.
Lawmakers in South Carolina canceled this week's session of the state legislature, citing weather concerns.
The storm took a toll on air travel across the region, with more than 3,000 U.S. flights canceled and hundreds of others delayed, according to flight tracking website FlightAware.com.
STOCKING UP ON SPIRITS
The manager of a popular Louisiana grocery store said it was packed with shoppers stocking up on food and supplies before it also closed.
"They were buying hurricane stuff, including a lot of spirits, of course," said Edwin Moreno, manager at Dorignac's Food Center in suburban New Orleans.
The bad weather prompted a federal judge in Knoxville, Tennessee, to postpone court proceedings part way through a sentencing hearing for three peace activists, including an elderly nun.
Winter weather advisories were also issued for a wide swath of eastern and central Texas for Tuesday, with predictions of up to 1 inch of snow near the state's border with northern Louisiana.
Rain and freezing temperatures combined to snarl the morning commute through large parts of central Texas and Louisiana, where roads and bridges were iced over. Police in Austin, Texas, reported more than 150 crashes caused by icy roads but said there had been no fatalities.
(Reporting and writing by Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, NC; Additional writing by Jon Herskovitz in Austin; Additional reporting by David Beasley in Atlanta, Karen Brooks in Austin, Texas, Lisa Bose McDermott in Texarkana, Texas, Emily Le Coz in Jackson, Mississippi, Verna Gates in Birmingham, Alabama, Ian Simpson in Washington and Melodi Erdogan in Knoxville, Tennessee; editing by Cynthia Osterman, Leslie Adler and Gunna Dickson)