RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) _ A fierce winter storm dumped more than 2 feet of snow on the central Appalachians, stranding hundreds of travelers and leaving thousands of customers without electricity today.

Heavy rain and wind lashed lower elevations and coastal flood warnings were posted, with warnings of seas up to 12 high.

Interstate 40 remained closed this morning through the mountains of western North Carolina, where two traffic deaths were blamed on the weather.

``The storm itself did not surprise us,'' Brian McFeaters of North Carolina's emergency management division said today. ``It was forecast to be a strong northeaster along the coast. What did catch us totally by surprise is all the snow in the mountains.''

The storm started early Tuesday and up to 28 inches of snow was on the ground this morning at Beckley, W.Va., while only rain fell 60 miles away at Charleston. As much as 2 1/2 feet fell in eastern Tennessee, with about 2 feet in parts of western North Carolina and just over a foot in eastern Kentucky and western Virginia.

Storm totals could hit 4 feet at highest elevations in West Virginia, the National Weather Service said. ``It will probably will be good for skiers _ if they can get there,'' said meteorologist Phil Zinn in Charleston.

``We'll probably just stay in today,'' said Lanell Spencer of Beckley, W.Va. ``We don't have much choice.''

North Carolina National Guard troops rescued 500 motorists snowbound along I-40, taking many of them to shelters. Part of the highway also was closed across the state line in Tennessee.

``They told us to back up and get over to the high school,'' said Frank Dorrance of Pueblo, Colo., who spent four hours stuck on I-40 with his family before ending up at Pisgah (N.C.) High School. ``We couldn't even get to a motel.''

Kentucky National Guardsmen had to rescue about 30 motorists stranded by snow and fallen trees on a highway over Black Mountain in Harlan County, and travel was still discouraged today.

``There are cars in ditches, on the median ground, everywhere,'' said state police Sgt. David Hale in Virginia, where a school bus ran off a road in Russell County and a Georgia tour bus did the same in Smyth County. No serious injuries were reported.

Power outages left more than 60,000 homes and businesses without lights in North Carolina and at least 55,000 in West Virginia.

Outages also blacked out much of Bristol, Va., and the surrounding area along the Virginia-Tennessee state line, as well as parts of the Harrisonburg area in the Shenandoah Valley. Widespread outages were reported in Tennessee.

Thirty-two people were evacuated from their homes because of snow and power outages in Tennessee's Carter County, where flooding earlier this month killed seven people and forced hundreds to flee their homes.

A state of emergency was posted for all 100 North Carolina counties. A gale warning was posted today for North Carolina's coast, with wind gusts of 45 mph and seas of 12 feet possible.

``I'm hoping for the best,'' said Webb Fuller, Nags Head town manager. ``But we're gearing up just in case something does happen.''