(Adds quotes and details throughout) By David Beasley ATLANTA, Jan 30 (Reuters) - Warmer weather was set to thaw the U.S. South on Thursday, bringing relief after a rare ice storm paralyzed much of the region, stranding motorists and school children, blocking highways and leading to deaths in several states. Emergency officials warned of early hazardous travel conditions after below-freezing temperatures overnight were expected to cause melting ice on roadways to freeze again. But forecasters said rising temperatures, sun and dry air would cause some of the ice to evaporate as the day progressed. "Certainly, the worst is over," said National Weather Service meteorologist, Stephen Corfidi. The storm on Tuesday swept over a region of about 60 million people largely unaccustomed to ice and snow, stretching from Texas, through Georgia and into the Carolinas. Elected officials in Georgia, including the governor and mayor of Atlanta, came under fire for their response to a storm that trapped hundreds of children in schools overnight and left traffic at a standstill for miles on roads coated with 2 inches (5 cm) of snow. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed on Thursday said roads within the city limits had been cleaned up and were now passable. "The streets in the city of Atlanta are clear," he told NBC's "Today" program, adding that Atlanta officials did not have jurisdiction over state highways in the area. Georgia officials on Thursday were to use four-wheel-drive vehicles to shuttle motorists to cars they abandoned on highways, where thousands of drivers had found themselves stuck in nightmarish commutes that lasted as much as 24 hours. Road crews planned to provide gas to fill empty tanks and a jump-start for cars with dead batteries. Other motorists would be offered rides to cars moved during clean-up efforts. Schools and government offices remained closed on Thursday in Atlanta, city and school websites said. Early on Thursday, it was an unseasonably freezing 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 the Georgia area and would get gradually warmer into the weekend, Corfidi said. It would warm up in other parts of the storm-affected Southeast, too, and by Sunday some areas could see temperatures in the low 60s F (15 to 17 F). At least five deaths in Alabama, two in Georgia, one in Mississippi and two in North Carolina were blamed on the storm. Emergency officials responded to hundreds of car crashes across the region. The weather also took a toll on air travel, with thousands of U.S. flights canceled or delayed, according to flight tracking website FlightAware.com. There were nearly 700 U.S. flight cancellations and more than 400 delayed early on Thursday. Atlanta Mayor Reed said it had been a mistake to have at least a million people heading home on Tuesday as the storm rolled in. "It hampered our ability to get our equipment on the ground and to prepare our roads for that," Reed told a news conference. "The error - and we have shared responsibility for the error - the error was letting everybody out at once." Georgia Governor Nathan Deal said 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. Deal had earlier angered many - including local meteorologists - when he described the storm late Tuesday as "unexpected." "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 max exodus of 1.2 million people would do to our travels" (Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington and Karen Brooks in Austin, Texas; Writing by Eric M. Johnson and Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Scott Malone and Sofina Mirza-Reid)
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