The images out of Raleigh and Charlotte recalled a similar scenario in Atlanta, a city shut down by 2.6 inches of snow two weeks ago when thousands of commuters were stuck on highways. Some drivers spent up to 20 hours in their cars.
"Right now we've got people traveling up and down the highways in special four-wheel vehicles to make any rescues that we need to make, and more than anything else we're just encouraging people to be smart, and don't put their stupid hat on during the next 48 hours," North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation is urging people not to abandon their vehicles.
"There are some people abandoning their vehicles. We are urging them not to. It is very dangerous for them to be on foot with cars sliding near them and it blocks access for our sand trucks and plows and causes gridlock," said Communications Supervisor Steve Abbott.
It appeared people in Atlanta had learned their lesson.
Deal applauded Atlantans who kept the roads clear, saying during a midday news conference, "That's a good starting point."
Even so, there were thousands without power across the state after ice caused tree limbs to snap, knocking out power lines.
With temperatures below freezing, the National Guard opened up 35 armories across the state to be used as shelters and warming centers, CNN affiliate WSB-TV reported.
In Durham, the Streets at Southpoint Mall opened up as a shelter.
"We are here for people that need to get off the road," general manager Todd Anderson said. "We had a few people here earlier, now there is just a handful of people left but we will be available through evening."
"We are just trying to do the right and get people out of the cold," he added.
The Red Cross, meanwhile, reported hundreds sought shelter overnight at its facilities stretching from Louisiana to North Carolina.
In North Carolina, Kim Martin Rehberg's typical 25-minute commute was turning into an hours-long ordeal Wednesday as she tried to make it from her office in Durham to her home in Raleigh.
Three hours later, she still had miles to go. So, too, did the rest of her family who were stuck in traffic across the region.
"My daughter was stranded trying to get from her gymnastics class in Apex. My ex-husband is trying to get her and he got trapped," she said by telephone, referring to a Raleigh suburb.
"My husband is in Charlotte and says things are bad. All the gas stations are shutting down, and I had trouble trying to gas up."
'Our own trucks are stuck'
There are snowplows on the roads but "unfortunately some of our own trucks are stuck in the same traffic jams that a lot of other people are and they're having a hard time getting to the roads that need to be cleared," said Dan Howe, Raleigh's assistant city manager.
The low-pressure weather system bringing the snow and ice to the Southeast is expected to move up the East Coast, dropping snow on the Northeast. Six to 8 inches are predicted for Washington, with especially heavy snowfall Thursday morning, and 6 to 10 inches on New York from midnight Wednesday into Thursday, with a combination of snow, sleet and rain continuing until Friday morning.
New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo told state agencies to prepare "for an impending nor'easter" and asked residents to avoid unnecessary travel.