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Politicians under fire as icebound U.S. South gets relief

Pedestrians make their way past vacant benches in snowy Lafayette Park in front of the White House in Washington January 27, 2014. REUTERS/K
Pedestrians make their way past vacant benches in snowy Lafayette Park in front of the White House in Washington January 27, 2014. REUTERS/K

By David Beasley

ATLANTA (Reuters) - City and state leaders admitted missteps on Thursday in their handling of a rare ice storm that swept across the U.S. South, killing at least 14 people, snarling traffic and setting off a barrage of criticism from Atlanta residents.

Warmer weather brought some relief to the region on Thursday after Tuesday's storm stranded commuters on slick highways for up to 24 hours and trapped hundreds of children in schools overnight.

In the aftermath, residents have criticized elected leaders from both political parties for allowing 2 inches of snow to bring to a standstill a city that is home to more than 5 million people heavily reliant on car travel.

"I am a disappointed parent and taxpayer," said Stacy Shipman, 43, a corporate trainer in Atlanta. "Someone should have prepared the city for what a mass exodus of 1.2 million people would do to our travels."

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, a Republican running for re-election this year, angered many - including local meteorologists - when he described the storm late Tuesday as "unexpected."

After the avalanche of criticism, the governor on Thursday took responsibility for the slow response and vowed to conduct a review aimed at improving procedures.

"I'm not going to look for a scapegoat," Deal told a news conference. "Our preparation was not adequate."

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat who easily won a second term last fall, was mocked for his Tweet on Tuesday that said: "Atlanta, we are ready for the snow."

In interviews on Thursday, Reed said government and school leaders shared responsibility for the errors. He pointed out that roads within Atlanta city limits were quickly cleaned up and said city officials did not have jurisdiction over state highways in the area.

Charley English, director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, said he made a "terrible error in judgment" by not acting more quickly to open the state's center that coordinates emergency response efforts.

"I got it wrong by at least six hours," he said. "In the future, rest assured, when forecasts change, there will be a much more aggressive response."

In one case, a woman delivered her baby girl in a car when she could not reach the hospital in time because of gridlock on an interstate north of Atlanta.

Across the region of about 60 million people unaccustomed to ice and snow, traffic froze for miles as the storm rolled in on Tuesday. Thousands of motorists found themselves stuck in nightmarish commutes as schools, businesses and government offices sent everyone home around the same time.

The storm-related chaos could come back to haunt Deal at the polls, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

A challenger for the Republican nomination for governor - Dalton, Georgia mayor David Pennington - took aim at Deal's leadership. Deal's likely Democratic opponent, Jason Carter, a grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, could find the criticism to be effective with independent voters.

"If they spent many, many hours stuck in a car or sleeping on the floor at Home Depot, it might well resonate with them," Bullock said.

SOME RELIEF EXPECTED

Some residents were more willing to cut leaders some slack.

Patty McIntosh-Mize, a 49-year-old mediator in Atlanta, said she wondered whether taxpayers wanted to foot the bill for costly preventative measures and equipment in an area rarely hit by bad weather.

"And if we are not willing to pay that price, then I would ask, ‘Are we all willing to share some of the responsibility for when things like this happen?'" she said.

Schools and government offices remained closed on Thursday in Atlanta, and the Public Schools system there announced it would be closed again on Friday.

Early on Thursday, it was an unseasonably cold 16 degrees Fahrenheit (-9 C). But later in the day, temperatures were expected to climb to the mid- to upper-30s Fahrenheit (2 to 4 Celsius) in Georgia and would get gradually warmer into the weekend, said National Weather Service meteorologist Stephen Corfidi.

Other parts of the storm-affected Southeast are also expected to warm up and, by Sunday, some areas could see temperatures in the low 60s F (15 to 17 C).

"Certainly, the worst is over," Corfidi said.

The deadly storm stretched from Texas, through Georgia and into the Carolinas. At least five fatalities in Alabama, two in Georgia, five in Mississippi and two in North Carolina were blamed on the weather.

Emergency officials responded to hundreds of traffic accidents across the region, and thousands of U.S. flights were canceled or delayed.

In Alabama, the weather forced some 11,300 students to spend the night at their schools on Tuesday, a state education department spokesman said.

Officials in Shelby County, Alabama, said many roads remained impassable on Thursday because of ice and some were still blocked by cars that had been abandoned during the storm.

A pastor in Jefferson County said the home of one of his church members burned to the ground when firefighters' access was blocked by an abandoned car.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington, Karen Brooks in Austin, Texas; Verna Gates in Birmingham, Alabama; Kevin Gray in Miami; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Gunna Dickson)

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