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By David Beasley
ATLANTA (Reuters) - Politicians faced a barrage of criticism for mishandling a rare ice storm that swept across the U.S. South, killing at least nine people and paralyzing roads in Atlanta, where warmer weather was expected to bring some relief on Thursday.
Atlanta commuters stranded on slick highways for up to 24 hours and parents of children trapped in schools overnight criticized elected leaders for allowing 2 inches of snow to bring city roads to a standstill.
"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."
Officials in both political parties faced pointed questions about poor planning in the metropolitan area that is home to more than 5 million people and heavily reliant on car travel to reach its crowded suburbs.
As the storm on Tuesday rolled over a region of about 60 million people unaccustomed to driving in ice and snow, traffic froze for miles. Thousands of motorists found themselves stuck in nightmarish commutes as schools, businesses and government offices sent everyone home around the same time.
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."
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, but pointed out that roads within Atlanta city limits were quickly cleaned up.
"The streets in the city of Atlanta are clear," he told NBC's "Today" show, adding that Atlanta officials did not have jurisdiction over state highways in the area.
The governor also focused on progress, saying all of Atlanta's school children had been safely returned to their families by Wednesday evening, with help from the National Guard and State Patrol.
But a challenger for the Republican nomination for governor criticized Deal's leadership.
"Government's primary role is to protect the people; Nathan Deal has failed miserably once again," said candidate David Pennington, who serves as mayor of Dalton, Georgia.
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. 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 F).
"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, one 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.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington, Karen Brooks in Austin, Texas; Verna Gates in Birmingham, Alabama; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; editing by Gunna Dickson)