The South braces for winter storm

Picture of snow in Memphis, Tennessee streets on Friday, January 2017.

ATLANTA (CNN) — Fleets of salt trucks hit the highways Friday — as the threat of a winter storm loomed across the southeastern United States.

A potential mix of snow, sleet and ice is expected to sweep through the region late Friday and early Saturday.

The National Weather Service has issued winter storm watches for parts of Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas — including the metropolitan areas of Atlanta, Birmingham, Alabama and Greenville, South Carolina.

A winter storm watch means there is potential for significant snow, sleet or ice accumulations that may impact travel. Lighter accumulations of snow are forecast for portions of Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia. “The heaviest snowfall (is) expected to fall from the southern Appalachians to southeastern Virginia,” said the National Weather Service, adding that “most precipitation will begin to taper off by Saturday evening.”

Georgia

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency due to the threat of severe winter weather. CNN’s meteorologists forecast at least an inch of snow is likely to fall in metro Atlanta, with potential for up to 4 inches.

Crowds flocked to grocery stores in the city to load up on bread, milk and other items in advance of the winter weather. Others were more skeptical. Alex Preston posted a photo of long lines on Instagram. “Because of a snow flurry … really?” Preston’s post said.

Atlanta school students will go home two hours early Friday and the Georgia Tech’s Atlanta campus will close at noon.

The best news about the storm is that it will happen on the weekend, which should prevent another “snow jam” scenario like the one that paralyzed Atlanta in January 2014.

During that storm tens of thousands of weekday commuters left work around the same time, creating massive gridlock on roads and highways and stranding vehicles for hours.

Alabama

In Birmingham, the storm will begin earlier on Friday, most likely as a wintry mix of snow and sleet. There is a chance the air will remain just warm enough in places farther south that the precipitation will fall as sleet.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley also has declared a state of emergency — putting 300 Alabama National Guard soldiers on standby should the storm blow over.

The University of Alabama is suspending operations for the day.

Carolinas

Raleigh, North Carolina, is likely to face the brunt of the storm, with 4 to 10 inches of snow predicted. Charlotte is looking at some 3-4 inches of snow.

Eye on the snow

While hardy folks from the North often scoff at Southerners for the clearing of store shelves, we might be able to thank a particular region for at least some of it, according to AccuWeather.com.

“It appears that New Englanders can take credit for the purchasing of milk and bread prior to the storm,” the site reported last year. “It was the monumental blizzard in 1978 that trapped many in homes for weeks that gets at least some credit for the current tradition.”

Amid the run on goods, forecasters are telling people to take warnings and watches seriously.

Major airlines issued advisories about potential impact. Flightaware, which tracks cancellations, on Thursday evening did not show a large number of those for Friday and Saturday, but those numbers could quickly change.

Snowstorms in the South are notoriously difficult to forecast, as timing or a change of 1 or 2 degrees can be the difference between several inches of snow or just a cold rain. National Weather Service meteorologists called the forecast “tricky” in their discussion of the storm Wednesday.

There is still some uncertainty, as a few forecasting models show precipitation arriving before the temperatures cool down enough to create snow.

As the storm develops there is chance that a narrow band of forecasted higher snow totals could widen, producing heavier snow across a broader area.

CNN’s Azadeh Ansari, Brandon Griggs and Dave Alsup contributed to this story.