MURRAY, Ky. -- Residents displaced by a winter storm rested in every corner of a university theater, about 100 of them sprawled in aisles, propped in chairs, curled up on the stage. Some watched a movie while others settled in - but all could sleep soundly with the heat blasting, the assurance of food and water nearby.
Among the battered crowd Thursday night were brothers Jim McClung, 42, and Dale Earnest, 38, forced to hole up in the makeshift shelter at Murray University in southwestern Kentucky. They, and many like them at hundreds of shelters in several states, ran out of food and water at their frigid, powerless home in the wake of an ice storm.
At least 1.3 million homes and businesses were without power across a wide swath of the country. Utility companies struggled through ice-encrusted debris into Friday morning as they worked to restore power, but warned it may not return until Saturday at the earliest. It could take until mid-February for some to come back online.
"This is our first natural disaster," Earnest said.
"I had no idea the storm was going to last this long," his brother added.
They made it to the shelter only after hiking to a nearby police station and asking. Deputies trekked door-to-door in many communities to let people know where shelters were, forced to spread the word the old-fashioned way because cell phone and Internet service was spotty. In some towns, volunteers checked to make sure their elderly and disabled neighbors were all right.
Many Kentucky hotels offering discounted "power outage rates" reported being fully booked with people escaping frosty neighborhoods. Those who hunkered down in their homes face long lines to buy generators, firewood, groceries - even bottled water because power outages crippled local pumping stations.
Truckloads of ready-to-eat meals, water and generators from the Federal Emergency Management Agency were expected to arrive Friday at a staging area in Fort Campbell, Ky., said Mary Hudak, a spokeswoman for FEMA's southeast region.
In Paducah, Amber Fiers and her neighbor Miranda Brittan tried a half-dozen filling stations before finding one where they could buy kerosene. The two were in a line that swelled to 50 or more at the 13th Street Station, which began pumping kerosene after its owner set up a generator.
"We got food, but I'm just worried about staying warm," said Brittan, who lives in Mayfield, adding she was frustrated by the search for supplies.
"By the time you hear about a place that's open they're out when you get there," she said.
Roads were still littered with ice-caked power lines, downed trees and other debris. Help from around the country was arriving in convoys to assist the states with the worst outages.
At a mall turned into a staging area in Barboursville, W.Va., crews in hard hats met Thursday alongside piles of poles, generators, wire and other supplies to find out where to go first.
"I've been sitting 'round for two days, eating cold hot dogs and bologna," said 70-year-old John Grimes, describing what he ate at home before coming to the shelter. he uses a wheelchair, is blind in one eye, and a diabetic.
Since the storm began Monday, the weather has been blamed for at least 27 deaths, including six in Texas, four in Arkansas, three in Virginia, six in Missouri, two in Oklahoma, two in Indiana, two in West Virginia and one each in Ohio and Kentucky. Emergency officials feared that toll could rise if people stay in their homes without power for too long, because improper use of generators can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.
Jimmy Eason was among those who decided to tough it out anyway in Velvet Ridge, Ark., gingerly stepping across his yard, watching for icicles falling from electrical wires. He was headed to his Ford F-150 pickup truck, which was warmer than his one-story house.
"I'm sleeping in a car, which is just fine," Eason, 74, said. "There's nothing wrong with a car. Every couple of hours I turn it on, I let it run for 10 minutes and that keeps it pretty warm."
Eason was trying to avoid boredom, and drove to Burger King to get a meal because he was tired of eating cold soup. "It's kind of a chore to occupy your mind. I'm used to doing things and keeping busy," he said. "You just have to endure a couple of days and it will be all right."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press Writers Dylan T. Lovan, Brett Barrouquere and Bruce Schreiner in Louisville, Ky.; Daniel Shea in Velvet Ridge, Ark.; John Raby in Charleston, W.Va.; and Betsy Taylor in St. Louis, Mo.