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South cleans up after unusually intense storm
15 deaths blamed on icy weather
W weather
Alison Brown, 9, catches snow flakes on her tongue during a rare snow storm in Evans, Ga., Wednesday. Snow, ice and a record-breaking blast of cold closed runways, highways, schools and government offices across the South. - photo by Associated Press

DURHAM, N.C. — Southerners shoveled, scraped and plowed their way Thursday out of a snowy deep freeze that caused a standstill across much of a region accustomed to mild winters.

At least 15 people died, including a baby in a car that slid off an icy street outside New Orleans, and a 6-year-old boy who sledded onto a roadway in Virginia.

Authorities across the South urged drivers to stay off treacherous roads. Louisiana highways remained closed much of the day and New Orleans residents were avoiding showers to restore pressure to a system plagued by frozen pipes. Atlanta was slowly returning to normal after being frozen in its tracks by about an inch of snow.

All this raises a familiar question: Why do severe winters seem to catch southerners unprepared? Experts on disaster planning say it's tough to justify maintaining fleets of snow plows when the weather's only occasionally nasty.

"People are putting their money, their resources and their planning time where it's most necessary, and that has to do with an understanding of what the risks are in any place," said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.

Still, "if you get even a modest amount of snow, you can't be caught completely unprepared for that either," he said.

North Carolina is accustomed to getting some snow, but people were surprised at the ferocity of this storm, which dumped as much as an inch per hour from the mountains to the coast and piled a foot of snow (30 centimeters) in parts of Durham County.

Mark Foley, 24, struggled to start his pickup in the 15-degree (9 Celsius) air before he was able to go pick up an in-home health aide for his disabled father.

"My lock was frozen, so I couldn't even unlock the door. So I had to use some warm water," he said. "It's more snow than we thought we were going to get."

State transportation officials had 2,200 trucks out plowing and salting a day after the storm hit. Despite this, troopers responded to more than 2,700 crashes and police reported hundreds more as North Carolina's five most populous cities all saw significant snow.

John Rhyne, a maintenance engineer with the N.C. Department of Transportation in the central part of the state, said he's proud of his crews' ability to clear roads in the region even after this week's daunting totals.

"If it was New England and it snowed every day, I think the assumptions would be a little bit different," he said. "But it is the South. We get four or five good events a year."

In Atlanta, temperatures remained below freezing until midday. Metro Atlanta's commuter rail system was operating on a limited schedule as the city recovered from the approximately 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) of snow and ice that brought the area to a standstill.

On Thursday, airlines canceled another 200 flights at Atlanta's airport, and dozens of other flights at airports in Charlotte and Raleigh.

Schools remained closed or had delayed openings across much of the region, effectively giving many students a seven-day break as the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday extended through Thursday.

Louisiana was also struggling to dig out. Every interstate in Baton Rouge remained closed Thursday morning, including Interstates 10 and 12, which were blocked to motorists across the southeastern stretch of the state. By mid-afternoon, many of the roadways had opened, though bottlenecks remained.

Most of the fatalities happened in traffic accidents, including a man knocked off an icy elevated interstate in New Orleans, a West Virginia college student who slammed into an iced-up tractor-trailer and someone in a minivan that slid into a canal in North Carolina.

Others were believed to have died of exposure to bitterly cold weather in Louisiana, Texas and Tennessee.

In Durham, a police officer was able to avert tragedy by jumping into a frigid creek to help a driver and her passenger after their car ran down an embankment during the storm Wednesday. Police said the officer guided the women through waist-deep water to safety.

Brandon Lemasters, a truck driver from Winston-Salem, helped out a friend whose SUV slid downhill and hit a curb, nearly knocking his right rear tire off the axle. The spot was still dangerous on Thursday: "You can see this is all a sheet of ice," Lemasters said.

Josh Pietrafeso moved to Winston-Salem from Denver, where he said the city was better prepared for snow.

"They really start a lot earlier than they do here, which I think is probably a good idea for here," he said.

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