RALEIGH, N.C. -- A major winter storm imposed its will on much of North Carolina Wednesday, leaving a coating of snow, sleet and freezing rain that slowed traffic to a slippery slog and threatened to turn many areas dark because of power outages.

The third episode of wintry weather was the worst to hit the state in as many days, and this time, it affected areas from the mountains to the coast. The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for Wednesday and into Thursday covering 95 of the state's 100 counties.

The storm had been forecast for days. Still, within an hour of the first flakes main arteries in the state's urban centers turned into skating rinks clogged with commuters trying to get home. Those driving vehicles not equipped with four-wheel drive found that if they stopped on a hill, it was nearly impossible to get moving forward again.

Traffic cameras trained on roadways in Charlotte and Raleigh showed traffic backed up. Many were already comparing the winter weather to big storms that hit the state in 2002 and 2005, resulting in a massive city-wide gridlock that left motorists stuck for hours and children stranded at schools.

The sudden seriousness of the storm caught even Yankee transplant Caitlin Palmieri off guard. The worker at a bead store in downtown Raleigh said snow was already sticking to the roads by the time a co-worker called to advise her to go ahead and head home as soon as possible.

"I pulled out of the parking lot, and I could feel my wheels spinning immediately," said Palmieri, 26, who is spending her third winter in Raleigh after moving South from Clinton, N.Y. "It seemed like every other car was getting stuck, fishtailing, trying to move forward."

She made it only a few blocks before getting her Volvo stuck on a hill. She was forced to abandon her car and walk back to work. She wasn't sure where she would spend the night.

Power outages were beginning to mount in southeastern North Carolina, where ice was snapping tree limbs and power lines. Duke Energy reported nearly 77,000 of its customers were without electricity in six counties along the coast and on the South Carolina border. Of that total, almost 50,000 are in New Hanover County, with 11,000 outages reported in Columbus County.

Up to 10 inches is possible in the Asheville area, where heavy snow has already begun to fall. Up to 11 inches of snow is possible around Charlotte, with as much as 10 inches in the Greensboro and Winston-Salem areas. As much as 6 inches of snow could fall around Raleigh.

Only an inch or so of accumulation is expected in the eastern part of the state, but much of that could be ice.

Authorities said a woman died in a weather-related traffic accident in Moore County when a car in which she was a passenger struck a tree. A state Highway Patrol trooper was hospitalized after his parked cruiser was struck by another car.

Gov. Pat McCrory signed orders in advance of the storm declaring an emergency, freeing state resources to react. The governor urged residents to prepare for power outages by plugging in cellphones and finding batteries for radios and flashlights.

McCrory also urged people to get home and stay off roads predicted to become ice-covered and slick, saying he planned to skip tonight's basketball showdown between Duke and North Carolina.

"Stay smart. Don't put your stupid hat on at this point in time. Protect yourself. Protect your family. Protect your neighbors," McCrory said.

Raleigh police spokesman Jim Sughrue said travel problems and congestion were being reported across the city, especially at the bottom of hills and at major intersections. He said exits ramps were also affected.

Duke spokeswoman Meghan Musgrave says the utility has about 3,400 field workers on the ground in North Carolina and South Carolina, including 500 who have arrived from out of state. Those workers are staying in Greensboro and Florence until Duke determines where they're needed because those are centrally located cities.

The workers from Florida are staying in South Carolina, while people from the Midwest will help in North Carolina. Duke has about 715,000 customers in South Carolina and about 3.2 million in North Carolina.

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Waggoner and Dalesio contributed from Raleigh. Biesecker reported from Durham.

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