DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Southerners awaited a big thaw that would end days of icy roads, broken pipes, snow and numbing cold after a fierce winter storm blasted their normally mild region.
For the third straight night, state troopers warned of ice making roads and highways treacherous after the snow that hit a wide swath of the South melts and refreezes in the early hours Friday. After sunrise, forecasters said, a major warmup will be on the way. The weekend looks downright balmy by comparison, with highs expected to reach the more typical 50s and 60s (10s and 15s Celsius) for winter in the South.
At least 15 people have died since the midweek snow storm spread from Texas to North Carolina and beyond. The dead included an 8-month-old baby in a car that slipped off a suburban New Orleans road and a 6-year-old Virginia boy who sledded into a driver's path.
Sunshine and daytime highs well above freezing Friday were expected to help thaw out places like Atlanta, which was frozen in its tracks by just about an inch (2.5 centimeters) of snow, and New Orleans, where residents refrained from taking showers so water pressure could be restore to a system plagued by frozen pipes.
North Carolina is accustomed to getting some snow each winter. But residents were surprised at the ferocity of the latest storm, which dumped as much as an inch (2.5 centimeters) per hour from the state's mountains to its coastline, piled up a foot of snow (30 centimeters) in parts of hard-hit Durham County.
North Carolina 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, said he was proud of his crews' road-clearing abilities amid such heavy snow.
"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."
Experts on disaster planning say it's tough for Southern cities 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, he said, "if you get even a modest amount of snow, you can't be caught completely unprepared."
Schools remained closed or had delayed openings across much of the region, effectively giving many students an eight-day break as the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday extended all the way through the week.
Most of the storm's deaths arose from weather-related traffic accidents. The dead included 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 a person in a minivan that slid into a canal in North Carolina. Elsewhere, others were believed to have died of exposure to bitterly cold weather in Louisiana, Texas and Tennessee.
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.
Foreman reported from Winston-Salem. Also contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Jack Jones in Columbia; Gary D. Robertson in Cary, North Carolina; Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama; Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge; and Jeff Martin in Atlanta.