By BRIAN HAWKINS
The threat of a major winter storm later this weekend has local officials taking precautions in case forecasts for snow and ice come to pass.
National Weather Service meteorologists in Jackson on Friday placed 44 Mississippi counties — including Oktibbeha County and all surrounding counties — under a winter storm watch.
The watch is in effect through Sunday as a low pressure system moving along the Gulf Coast is expected to combine with a cold air mass over the region to produce “widespread wintry precipitation” across much of Mississippi and areas of northeast Louisiana and southeast Arkansas, according to an alert posted on the Weather Service website on Friday.
The NWS alert says the highest probability for winter precipitation for the northern counties under the winter storm watch will be snow, with “current indications are that 4 to 8 inches of snow likely...,” possibly mixed with some sleet or freezing rain.
Brisk east to northeast winds between 10 and 25 mph are also expected, which, combined with any snow or ice accumulations, could result in some power interruptions and make travel in the affected areas difficult.
Areas north of Interstate 20 see the greatest danger for hazardous roads since temperatures are forecast to remain below freezing throughout the storm Sunday, Sunday night and Monday.
“Treacherous driving conditions may be expected especially on bridges or overpasses late Sunday into Monday,” said Jim Britt, Oktibbeha County emergency management director, in an e-mail to area officials that was shared with the Daily News.
“I expect a winter storm warning may be posted later Saturday or early Sunday. Please prepare now. There may be extended power outages, dangerous driving conditions, and cold temperatures,” Britt said.
The chilly weather began descending on the area Friday and night and temperatures are not expected to rise out of the mid-40s today. Tonight’s low temperature is forecast in the upper teens.
As of late Friday night, Starkville area forecasts are calling for a 60 percent chance of snow and sleet on Sunday with a high temperature in the lower 30s. A 100 percent chance of snow is forecast Sunday night with lows in the mid-20s.
Monday’s forecast is calling for a 30 percent chance of snow and sleet with a high temperature in the mid- to upper 30s.
Lynn Spruill, chief administrative officer for the City of Starkville, said staff members in all city departments — particularly those in the Public Services, Electric, Street and Landscape departments — have been put on alert to respond if problems arise.
“We’re monitoring the weather situation and will have city departments ready to respond as needed,” Spruill said.
Officials with Oktibbeha-Starkville Emergency Response Volunteer Services (OSERVS) were also taking steps to be able to respond if the weather situation deteriorates.
“In the event that we have a major power outage, we will partner with First Baptist Church for shelter and we will provide feeding services for folks in the shelter through First United Methodist Church,” said OSERVS director Becky Wilkes on Friday.
“We hope we won’t need it, but we have plans in place if we’re needed.”
In addition to preparing themselves, Wilkes urged residents to check on their neighbors — particularly those who are elderly or single parents with young children — to make sure they are ready for the approaching storm system.
“Everyone is urged to stay ‘weather aware’” during this weekend and into next week. Keep up with local forecasts and be prepared,” Wilkes said.
Officials with the Starkville and Oktibbeha County school districts were also urging residents to pay attention to local weather forecasts and media reports on the storm, particularly should conditions require them to cancel classes.
“The Starkville School District will notify parents and district employees of any school closings, cancellations or delays for Monday via our rapid communication system, AlertNow, using voice and e-mail messaging. Parents and employees may also monitor the district’s website and area media outlets for information concerning closings, cancellations or delays,” said Walter Gonsoulin, SSD assistant superintendent for operations and federal programs.”
“The Starkville School District encourages parents to begin to make plans for their children in the event school is cancelled.”
Oktibbeha County school officials are taking similar precautions, said Supt. James Covington.
“We’re going to utilize our messenger system. Parents will be notified through phone, e-mail or text message. They can also watch their local news station, as well,” Covington said Friday.
Mississippi State officials, in a statement posted on the university’s website Friday, urged students, faculty and staff to monitor the weather conditions.
Announcements about any weather-related closings or changes to the university schedule will be posted on the MSU website and announced through area media outlets.
Editor’s note: More information about winter storm preparation will be published in Sunday’s edition of the Starkville Daily News and on the SDN website at http://www.starkvilledailynews.com  as potential conditions develop. SDN staff members Shea Staskowski and Paul Sims contributed to this report.