The panic began before dawn yesterday, as Atlantans stormed grocery stores to stock up for the blizzard that never came.

Schools were closed and businesses were shut down. At midday, bank clerk Valeria Sloan, 22, raced for her commuter train with terror in her eyes. Office workers deserted the downtown area as if it were a sinking ship. By noon, Atlanta was a ghost town, and the first snowflake had yet to fall.

"It's ridiculous," said Sloan, who grew up amid knee-deep snows in Massachusetts. "The snow is hardly flaking down and people are going nuts. Even I've been infected by the panic, and I'm from up north. But I get the day off. Can you believe they're going to pay us?"

As major winter storms knocked down power lines in south Georgia and heaped snow, sleet and ice in North Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young warned residents to stay home.

"We've got a full-scale storm alert," he said, as paltry flakes whispered down, most melting on impact. "Our garbage trucks have salted bridges and roads. We don't have any snowplows. No one knows what we do from here. We just wait and see."

Atlanta waited. Several customers at Fitzgerald's, a Peachtree Street lounge, telephoned their spouses to report that they were snowed in. Outside, nothing.

One radio station dispatched a mobile van south to advance the galloping storm, which dumped up to 3 inches of snow on middle Georgia.

"We're really going to get it in about an hour," one radio meteorologist said as temperatures hovered at 30 degrees. Still, nothing.

Yet, Yankee migrants like Kim Smith, 28, fled downtown to get away from snow-panicked locals, who were advised to imagine driving with eggshells on the accelerator and the brake.

"We like to live dangerously," said Steve Brooks, 28, a structural engineer sitting in a bar with Pac-Man, a screwdriver and a friend, Gayla Wingate. Brooks pined for Snowjam '82, last year's big storm that paralyzed the city. "We hope we'll get snowed in again," he said.

"Last snowstorm we had, I spent four days in a bar," said Ralph Best, 70, sipping a draft beer. "Best time I ever had in my life."

By nightfall, there were a few patches of ice, a thin glaze of snow and a hint of sleet.

Mayor Young, in his City Hall bunker, said, "If it doesn't get any worse, we're subject to be charged with overreaction."