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Former Lewis County resident says winter storms in the South worse than in north country

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While north country residents were shoveling more than a foot of snow from their driveways, winter storm Leon was dusting the Southern states with a seasonal disaster in its own right. A former north country resident said it wasn’t the amount of snow that made the storm so noteworthy, but its impact on an area that never sees snow or ice.

Former Glenfield resident Naomi J. Pominville said the roughly 1 inches of snow that fell in her Marietta, Ga., neighborhood on Tuesday brought far worse consequences than storms she had seen in the north country. Her normal 20-minute commute from the suburb of Atlanta was extended to two hours and she was forced to remain homebound for two days while road crews cleaned up the mess on highways.

“At least up in Northern New York, people are prepared; there are trucks ready to go out to plow or salt,” Miss Pominville said. “People in the South didn’t know how to handle it.”

During the storm’s peak, at least eight people died from traffic accidents and six people were killed in fires blamed on space heaters. The latest was in Savannah, where two children were killed early Thursday as temperatures hovered below freezing. In the Midwest, an 86-year-old woman died of hypothermia outside her suburban Chicago home.

About 11 a.m. Tuesday, Miss Pominville said, news was spread that snow was coming, and she and some of her co-workers were told to head home. The dry snowfall quickly melted on the roadways and froze. Miss Pominville said it was this mix of ice, inexperienced winter drivers and crowds of residents hitting the road at the same time that left roads in the Atlanta area congested and often impassable.

“I have the regular, factory-issued tires. This is just one storm; I haven’t had a need for better tires. It was an interesting adventure,” Miss Pominville said. “We were making our own lanes on the highway, and that was becoming scarier and scarier when people were driving closely.”

At the peak of the storm, thousands of cars littered the interstates in Georgia and Alabama. Some people ran out of gas, some were involved in accidents and others simply left their cars on the side of the road so they could walk home or to somewhere warm. Miss Pominville said some cars were simply parked in the middle of a lane with their flashers on.

About 1,600 students in Alabama who spent two nights at schools were finally home Thursday, and all of the state’s highways were reopened. Schools and government offices were still closed in several states.

“I’ve experienced worse roads before, but there were so many people without experience. I don’t want them overcorrecting or braking hard or gunning it; that just doesn’t work,” Miss Pominville said.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal took responsibility Thursday for the poor storm preparations that led to an epic traffic jam in Atlanta and forced drivers to abandon their cars or sleep in them overnight when the storm dumped a couple of inches of snow.

“We did not make preparations early enough,” Mr. Deal said at a news conference.

The National Weather Service explicitly cautioned Monday that snow-covered roads “will make travel difficult or impossible.” The agency issued a winter storm warning for metro Atlanta early Tuesday and cautioned against driving.

Mr. Deal said warnings could have been posted along highways earlier, but he also fended off criticism.

“We don’t want to be accused of crying wolf. Because if we had been wrong, y’all would have all been in here saying, ‘Do you know how many millions of dollars you cost the economies of the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia by shutting down businesses all over this city and this state?’” he told reporters.

The Atlanta area was crippled by an ice storm in 2011, and officials had vowed not to be caught unprepared again. But in this case, few closings or other measures were ordered ahead of time.

Initially the cars left on the highway were being towed at no cost, but Miss Pominville said there were just too many abandoned vehicles.

“There wasn’t a lot of preparation. They were reactive, but next time they need to be proactive,” she said. “I watched the state Department of Transportation tow the vehicles to the sides of the road and put in a long line.”

On Thursday, the Georgia Department of Transportation put a news release on its website saying that officials have a database to help owners find their vehicles, towed for safety reasons, at specific impound facilities. Authorities will provide transportation to those facilities.

“I saw on Facebook people were just giving up and leaving their cars, if they could, and trying to get into a hotel,” Miss Pominville said. “If there wasn’t a room, they were sleeping in hotel lobbies or in grocery stores — anywhere to keep warm.”

Miss Pominville wrote in a Facebook post: “All schools should have been closed. All truckers should have been ordered off the roads. You don’t abandon your cars in the middle of lanes. This was a major fail for everyone.”

By Thursday evening, Miss Pominville said, she was ready to leave her house to visit Starbucks and to buy some food.

“The sun is shining outside and I’m hoping it will be better out there by now,” she said. “I’m going stir crazy.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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