- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Claire Greer was out enjoying a last few hours of warmth Wednesday afternoon in Starkville, even as cold air, high winds and icy precipitation plunged into parts of Mississippi to her north and west.

Greer was watching Mississippi State University’s softball team play Georgia’s Kennesaw State University, dreading the moment when the wind would begin blowing from the north and winter would return.

“I’m ready for spring,” the Starkville retiree said by telephone. “That’s another reason I came out here to watch the girls play, before it gets cold.”

That forecast for cold, ice and snow got worse Wednesday, with forecasters warning ice is possible by noon Thursday as far south as a line running from Liberty to Magee to Meridian.

Winter had already blown back in the door in some areas. At Greenville, the temperature fell from 74 degrees to 48 degrees in an hour.

National Weather Service forecasters predicted that rain will change over first to freezing rain and then to sleet and snow. The changeover to frozen precipitation was expected in DeSoto County around sundown Wednesday. But it might not happen at the southern end of the storm until after sunrise Thursday.

“You start seeing trees and power lines coming down when you get a quarter-inch of ice,” said John Moore III, a forecaster with the Memphis office of the National Weather Service. He warned of gusts up to 45 mph that could worsen power outages and subfreezing temperatures persisting until Saturday on Mississippi’s northern edge.

“You’re looking at record lows Friday morning,” Moore said of the northern third of the state.

Gov. Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency Wednesday afternoon. Last week, more than 37,000 people were without power following an ice storm that struck a belt of northern Mississippi running from Grenada to Amory on Feb. 25. Utility officials were gearing up Wednesday for this storm to be worse.

Kevin Doddridge, the general manager of the Olive Branch-based Northcentral Electric Power Association, said workers were on call and that he feared that ice could be worse than in December 2013, when 7,000 of the cooperative’s 30,000 customers lost power. He said cold temperatures and snow that follow the ice could make restoration more difficult.

“We think it may be a little bit worse because the wind could kick up,” Doddridge said. “Especially with the cold weather, we’ve got to restore power as quickly as possible.”

Mississippi Emergency Management Agency spokesman Greg Flynn said officials were warning counties to open shelters powered by generators to give people an option beyond cold, dark homes. After last week’s ice storm, shelters or warming centers were opened in Grenada, Houston, Okolona and Greenville. Flynn said more counties are ready this time.

He said that the state Department of Transportation has positioned equipment and restocked on sand and salt. But he warned motorists against risking “deadly travel conditions” on iced-over roads and bridges.

“You can only salt and sand so much,” Flynn said. “People need to stay off the roads while it’s coming down.”

More ice and snow could put school districts in a tough spot. Benton County Superintendent Jack Gadd said his district has taken seven days off, including the entire week of Feb. 16 to Feb. 20. He said the district is contemplating an appeal to the state to waive makeup days, saying students attend school each day longer than the minimum required time.

Lafayette County Superintendent Adam Pugh said he was trying to wait until Thursday morning to decide whether to call off school. The district has already missed three days, scheduling makeup days for students on the Monday after Easter and the Tuesday and Wednesday after Memorial Day.

“If things keep going the way they are, we could get out on July 4,” Pugh said.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy

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