By Michael Pearson and Holly Yan
(CNN) — A winter storm is bringing the threat of snow and ice to a broad swath of the South, where snow plows and salt trucks are nearly as rare as bikinis in a Minnesota winter.
And while Northerners laugh at their Southern friends’ panic over a dusting of snow, the threat is real: With few resources to battle snow and ice, it will be difficult for public works crews to keep up with any significant accumulation.
Add to that millions of drivers inexperienced in the ways of snow and ice travel — some of them wanting to go play in the white stuff — and things could get tricky fast.
“I’m asking everybody, I know it’s going to be pretty if we get snow; it’s monumental; it’s great,” Montgomery County, Alabama, Commissioner Reed Ingram told CNN affiliate WAKA. “But do not get out there and ride in it.”
It’s not just the South that will be shuddering. Midwesterners and others more accustomed to bitter weather will also be freezing.
All told, about 140 million people in 34 states are under some sort of winter weather warning or advisory, from snow and ice to bitterly cold wind chills, according to CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller.
And, of course, you can bet air travel will be a mess across the country.
Already early Tuesday, airlines had canceled nearly 2,800 flights, most of them into or out of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, according to FlightAware.com, which tracks cancellations due to both weather and mechanical problems.
As much as 3 inches of snow could fall at the airport, according to forecasters.
Here’s what to expect around the country:
Sleet and freezing rain began falling early Tuesday in East Texas, along with Louisiana the first area to be affected by the winter storm.
But what had been a winter storm warning in the Houston area was downgraded to a winter weather advisory early Tuesday.
Still, Houston shut down all all public services not related to public safety, and the city’s school district — the largest in the state — will also be closed.
New Orleans and its suburbs could get half an inch of snow and ice by Tuesday evening, forecasters said. Parishes farther north could see 3 inches, with temperatures plunging into the single digits on Wednesday, the National Weather Service said.
“This town is shutting down” on Tuesday, New Orleans cab driver August Delaney said Monday. “Some bridges are going to shut down. Schools are closed. We are not going to put our kids on school buses.”
Mayor Mitch Landrieu declared a state of emergency and warned residents to remember what happened when temperatures dipped toward the freezing mark less than a week ago.
“We had bridges that were frozen over, as you might remember,” Landrieu said. “We had accidents on those bridges, a fairly large pileup on the Green Bridge. Sometime not long ago, when they had a similar event, there were a thousand crashes, and there were fatalities, and we want to make sure that we avoid all of that.”
State officials say that up to 4 inches of snow could fall in the south-central part of Mississippi, and the Gulf Coast could see three-quarters of an inch.
Robert Latham, the state’s emergency management director, warned residents to expect power outages as well.
“We’re looking at a part of the state that has a large number of pine trees,” Latham said. “I can tell you that as ice accumulates on pine trees, limbs will break. Trees will fall. Power will be out.”
Schools in Montgomery, the state capital, and Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city, will be closed Tuesday.
In Montgomery, as much as 3 inches of snow may fall. The governor delayed a special election to fill three state House vacancies, WAKA reported.
And grocery stores were selling out of some items, including canned goods, batteries and water, the station said.
Dominique Macon, who was stocking up Monday, said she would rather be safe than sorry.
“I’m getting everything I need to do today, because it is going to be dangerous out there. The roads are going to be slippery, and stuff is going on,” she told WAKA.
Atlanta, a city not accustomed to flurries, will have a 30% to 40% chance of snow Tuesday.
The city has spent more than $1 million on new snow-removal equipment since 2011, city Public Works Director Richard Mendoza told CNN affiliate WSB. That’s when a storm that Northern cities would have shrugged off in a day shut much of the city down for nearly a week.
“You prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Mendoza said. “Based on the current forecast, we anticipate having up to 40 crew members on 12-hour shifts.”
Farther south in Macon, where about 3 inches of snow could fall, Robins Air Force Base shut down for all but mission-essential personnel, and students will get both Tuesday and Wednesday off from school.
In nearby Monroe County, CNN affiliate WMAZ reported, public works crews were giving their winter weather fleet the once-over in prepation for the storm.
It’s not an onerous task. In a sign of just how rare this sort of weather is, there’s just one truck: a rusty old red Ford salt spreader.
Much of the northern Plains, Midwest and Northeast will probably shiver through daytime high temperatures 10 to 30 degrees below normal through Wednesday, the National Weather Service said.
Chicago’s temperature Tuesday could reach a whopping 3 degrees, but the wind chill in the Windy City will probably make it feel like minus-30 degrees.
In Wisconsin, the state Department of Transportation urged people to avoid driving if possible. If they must drive, they should carry a fully charged cell phone, have at least half a tank of gasoline and tell somebody where they’re going.
In Milwaukee, two motorists seconded that advice.
“It’s going to be pure ice. It’s all fluffy and light snow like this, and it’s going to melt down — going to be a mess,” Gary Lukowitz told CNN affiliate WITI.
“Even though you see the streets are plowed and it’s still slippery out there, still a lot of wet snow on the ground, still freezing and cars are still slipping around,” Adam Bernstein said.
And Minnesota authorities advised everyone to stay off the roads in the southern and western parts of the state.
CNN’s Matt Smith, Chad Myers, Sean Morris, Dave Hennen, Joe Sutton, Martin Savidge and Jareen Imam contributed to this report.
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