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Up north, snowplows are armadas — hundreds of them that fan out over and over to clear the streets during the punishing storms of winter. If they're handled carelessly, as more than one mayor of New York has learned, there's political hell to pay.
Not so for Columbia, S.C., which has a grand total of nine.
"They usually hang in the shed," said Robert Sweatt, the city's superintendent of street maintenance. "When we need them, we pull them out."
On Tuesday, the city was ready to give them a workout for the first time in at least three years. A rare winter storm stretched from Texas to Virginia, grounding thousands of flights and making a snowy, icy mess of roads.
Traffic came to a complete stop in the Atlanta area, where a traffic officer delivered a baby late Tuesday afternoon in the back seat of the car for a couple who were stranded in icy conditions on Interstate 285 in the suburb of Sandy Springs. A spokesman for the Sandy Springs police said mom and baby, who weren't identified, were doing fine.
Classes were canceled from Texas to the Carolinas, while some school districts that did open told parents it would be safer to simply let their kids stay at school overnight.
"Students who are at school will remain until our roads are safer," Cherokee County, Ga., school officials told parents Tuesday afternoon, adding that they were "prepared to shelter students as necessary."
The Home Depot hardware chain said it was keeping 14 Atlanta-area stores open overnight to provide shelter for stranded motorists. Other hardware stores across the South, meanwhile, were wiped clean of shovels and rock salt.
"Yesterday was the big grocery panic day," said Andy Smith, who runs the Nickelodeon, a nonprofit theater in Columbia. He decided to cancel showings of "Inside Llewyn Davis" and close his doors Tuesday and Wednesday.
He said his friends were divided evenly between people joking about overreaction and people "actually freaking out a little bit."
Forecasters said the storm would push through by Wednesday, but not before dumping as much as a foot of snow on Virginia Beach, Va., as much as 6 inches on Raleigh, N.C., and as much as 4 inches on Columbia.
"If we get a lot of snow, usually we can work with that snow over two-three days and it'll get gone," Sweatt said. "That's my plan. As far as my counterparts up north, my hat's off. I don't think I'd want to do that."
The flight-tracking site FlightAware said more than 3,100 flights were scrapped, most of them in the travel hubs of Atlanta, Chicago and Houston. All arrivals and departures were canceled at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans and at Savannah/Hilton Head Airport in Georgia.
Farther north, millions of people suffered Tuesday under another day of deep freeze. Subzero temperatures stretched from Montana to Pennsylvania. It was 11 below zero as the sun came up in Chicago, 8 below in Pittsburgh and 6 below in Cincinnati.
The wind chill once again made it feel much worse — 29 below in Chicago, 18 below in Pittsburgh and 42 below zero at the Minnesota-Canada border.
The unbearable cold forced schools to close in Minnesota, Chicago and western Pennsylvania. The University of Michigan shut down because of weather for the first time since 1978. Lake Geneva, Wis., recorded its 17th day of subzero temperatures this winter, double the average.
At least nine deaths have been blamed on the weather since Sunday, including two adults and two young children who were killed early Tuesday when the mobile home they were staying in burned down in rural Itawamba County, Miss. The state fire marshal's office said the fire was started by a space heater that was being used to keep nine occupants of the home warm in sub-freezing temperatures.
- The driver of a pickup truck died Tuesday morning in Colorado when the truck collided with snowplow on state Highway 67 near the town of Divide, about 15 miles northwest of Colorado Springs, the state Transportation Department said.
- Two people — a 68-year-old woman and a 37-year-old woman — were killed in separate crashes on icy roadways Tuesday in Surry County, N.C., the county emergency management agency said.
- A 46-year-old man was killed Monday in Midland, Texas, when a pickup truck went out of control on icy U.S. Route 10, overturned and rolled and through the median and slammed into his car, Midland police said in a statement.
- A 40-year-old Rockford, Ill., woman was killed Sunday evening when her car skidded at an icy intersection and rolled over in Winnebago County. The county sheriff's office said her husband and their 7-year-old son were also in the car but were expected to be OK.
The latest blast of frigid weather arrived just as a shortage of propane, the fuel used by 14 million Americans to heat their homes, reached critical proportion, with prices having more than doubled to almost $5 a gallon.
Half the country — 26 states — was under some form of emergency declaration easing transportation rules or lowering fees and taxes for propane delivery trucks.
James Brady of NBC News contributed to this report.