LITTLE ROCK — Sleet fell in northwestern Arkansas on Thursday morning marking the start of an ice storm expected to cripple much of the state into the weekend.
Temperatures plunged as a cold front crossed the state Wednesday night and Thursday, and forecasters said a series of weather disturbances were lined up to spread freezing rain, sleet and snow across all but far southeastern Arkansas.
"They're saying it may be as bad or worse than what we have been predicting," Gov. Mike Beebe said in Little Rock, where the high was 77 on Wednesday. "Throughout the day and evening Thursday and into Friday it could be bad, and then bad again Sunday — ice covered with snow."
Well before the temperatures dropped, the mere threat of icy weather forced a number of postponements and cancellations statewide, including three high school championship football games and a number of community celebrations to open the coming holiday season.
As is their custom as cold snaps arrive, Arkansans flocked to grocery stores to stock up on staples. In Little Rock, Debbie Wirges picked up some bread and butter Wednesday.
"When you get stuck in and you don't have groceries, you're out of luck," said Wirges, 62, outside a Walmart on the west side of town.
At Harrison, near the Missouri border, the parking lot of Hudson's Supermarket filled up as shoppers snagged milk, snacks and meat. And the store's general manager, John King, was glad to see it.
"From this perspective of a retailer, it's just a beautiful sight," King said.
Government agencies hoped to remain open but will consider shutting some offices if the forecast is bad enough ahead of time.
"If we know ... that it's going to be bad a certain morning, we will try to make the decision the night before," Beebe said. "If we don't know, we will do what we normally do, and that's wait until the early hours."
Forecasters issued an ice storm warning for the Interstate 40 across the entire state. A swath of Arkansas from Fort Smith to West Memphis could see up to an inch of ice before 6 p.m. Friday.
Winter weather warnings or advisories covered all but four counties in the far southern reaches of the state. Travel is expected to become difficult or impossible.
Entergy Arkansas, the state's largest electric utility, said it was hopeful that 8,000 workers would be available to replace fallen power lines. In addition to the ice, it said winds could knock trees into power lines.
The North Arkansas Electric Cooperative recommended that people have access to flashlights, a battery-operated radio, an alternate source of heat, disposable plates, a first aid kit, a charged cellphone and canned goods with a nonelectric can opener.
Civil authorities warned residents to be prepared for 72 hours without heat or a way to get groceries or medicine. The lighting of a community Christmas display at a Harrison cemetery was postponed, as were Saturday's Christmas parades at Lead Hill and Little Rock and the Sugarplum Festival in Leslie.
The University of Central Arkansas canceled events planned for prospective students and directed would-be attendees to events in February and March, and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith postponed final exams set for Thursday and Friday.
The Arkansas Activities Association, which sponsors high school athletic events, canceled football finals and semifinals set for Friday and Saturday — pushing back small-school championship games to the weekend before Christmas.
"We wanted to make sure everyone could travel to Little Rock or the other semifinal locations without hazardous driving conditions," said Lance Taylor, the association's executive director.