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Power outages growing as the ice storm arrives

By Joey Holleman, The State (Columbia, S.C.)
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Feb. 12--COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The worst of this week's winter storm began began just before dawn Wednesday in South Carolina, with sleet and snow putting down a white carpet in anticipation of the icy sheet to come.

State officials plea for people not to get on the highways unless absolutely necessary. Secondary roads already had a layer of slush early in the morning.

By 8:30 a.m., SCE&G reported almost 6,000 customers were without power in Aiken County. Other counties hit hard early included Colleton (1,974 outages), Dorchester (866), Allendale (440), Hampton (397) and Orangeburg (310).

The lights were still on in Richland and Lexington counties early Wednesday morning. Few power outages are being reported by S.C. Electric & Gas and the state's electric cooperatives.

However, Aiken County residents have not been as lucky with nearly 5,000 outages reported by SCE&G as of 8:30 a.m.Orangeburg had around 300 outages.

The total number of outages reported statewide by SCE&G was about 8,400, and 1,000 more by the electric cooperatives.

As conditions worsen, more outages are possible. A half-inch of ice could add 250 to 500 pounds of extra weight to power lines, Cayce-based utility provider SCE&G said.

However, SCE&G and the state's electric cooperatives have local crews and many who have come in from other states on standby to help restore power.

The National Weather Service expects the frozen precipitation to continue for about 24 hours. The mixture of sleet and snow is the best scenario. As the day progresses, it'll turn to freezing rain that forms as ice on whatever it hits. That's especially troublesome on trees and power lines.

The timing of the change from sleet/snow to freezing rain is key. The forecasted timing has gone back and forth, and now is expected to begin in mid-morning Wednesday in most of the Midlands.

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Forecasters warn the worst is yet to come from the double-barreled winter storm, after a first wave on Tuesday that featured pretty snow in the northern Midlands and sleet in the Columbia area.

The second wave is expected to slap enough ice on trees and power lines to be considered a major ice storm throughout much of the Midlands, according to the National Weather Service.

The worst of the storm's damaging ice is expected to arrive in the Columbia area early in the afternoon Wednesday, though the timing of the change from sleet to freezing rain varies tremendously over a few miles.

Nearly an inch of ice is expected in a corridor from Augusta through Orangeburg, and about three-quarters of an inch in Richland and Lexington counties. Those totals would be enough to snap limbs and weigh down power lines, emergency officials warn.

While the northern Midlands is expected to get less freezing rain Wednesday, it actually could end up with nearly 1.5 inches of sleet and freezing rain combined. And that will be on top of a sloppy dose of snow that fell in that area Tuesday and more snow expected in some areas early Wednesday.

"We have cedar trees that already are completely bent over with that wet, sticky snow," said Becky McSwain, who lives on the western shore of Lake Wateree. She also noted the big, wet flakes that fell Tuesday clumped in some pine branches, "and we've already had some blinks in the power lines. I've found my candles and my batteries."

Gov. Nikki Haley declared a state of disaster at noon Tuesday, giving emergency officials the full use of government resources. Schools, government offices and many businesses closed early Tuesday and planned not to open Wednesday.

The timing of the arrival of the freezing rain is tricky, depending on temperatures at various levels in the atmosphere as the second slug of moisture replaces the first. Sleet and freezing rain are equally troublesome on roads, but sleet is less of a concern for power companies because it sticks less to tree limbs and power lines.

The forecast calls for frozen precipitation through early Thursday for much of the Midlands, which means schools could open late or have another snow day Thursday.

The last time an ice storm of this magnitude hit the Midlands was in late January 2004, when young pine trees were bent to the ground under heavy ice from Edgefield to Florence. About $20 million in private insurance claims were filed, government agencies incurred $28 million in expenses and SCE&G spent nearly $15 million to repair damage.

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Roads are likely to be dicey most of the day Wednesday and early Thursday, but the more serious concern in ice storms is power outages. Hundreds of thousands of people lost power during the 2004 storm.

Most of the Upstate got some snow Tuesday and much more is expected from the second wave. Oconee and Paris Mountain state parks got more than 3 inches Tuesday and were closed. Some areas in the mountains could get nearly 10 inches total, which the lower elevations in the Upstate getting up to 6 inches.

The Lowcountry is forecast to get less of the ice, though still more than a quarter-inch in some areas.


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Distributed by MCT Information Services



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BRAMCO & Prudential: An Alliance For Life