Winter wonderland comes with high costs

jholleman@thestate.comJanuary 27, 2014 

  • Heavy snow

    Top 10 daily snowfalls (in inches) in Columbia history, using the official city National Weather Service recording site, according to the Southeast Regional Climate Center.

    12.3, Feb. 10, 1973

    10.2, Feb. 25, 1894

    9.9, Feb. 25, 1914

    8.8, Dec. 11, 1958

    8.6, Feb. 12, 2010

    6.8, Feb. 13, 1899

    6.5, Feb. 11, 1912

    6.3, Feb. 23, 1901

    6.2, Jan. 30, 1936

    5.9, Jan. 13, 1912

Children all over the Midlands are dreaming of the best case scenario for snowmen and snowball fights, which also happens to be one of the worst-case scenarios for winter storm problems.

The two most damaging types of winter precipitation, according to arborist Andy Boone of DendroDiagnostics, are:

•  Freezing rain that coats tree limbs and power lines with heavy layers of ice

•  Big, wet flakes of snow falling at around 32 degrees, followed quickly by a hard freeze that cements that snow to limbs and any structure that might fall under the weight.

Depending on where you live in South Carolina, you could suffer one or both of those situations in the winter storm expected to begin moving through the state early Tuesday. The National Weather Service’s winter storm warning lists hazards in the Midlands including 2-4 inches of snow, one-quarter to one-half inch of ice and wind gusts of up to 20 mph.

While there's a slight chance of sleet throughout the day Tuesday, the chances increase significantly late in the afternoon in Columbia. Then around sundown, the sleet is expected to turn to snow.

The timing and type of precipitation vary remarkably in the forecasts by just a few miles. The one constant is an extremely high chance of snow throughout the Midlands Tuesday night and early Wednesday. Columbia is in the area expected to get 3-4 inches.

“We have all of our crews and equipment ready,” said Eric Boomhower, spokesman for SCE&G, “and we’ve reached out to neighboring utilities to let them know we might be picking up the phone to call them for help.”

Winter storms account for roughly 8 percent of catastrophe losses nationally and more than you might think in South Carolina, according to S.C. Insurance News Service director Russ Dubisky. For instance, the cold blast in early January caused more than $20 million in commercial and homeowner insurance claims, and that was mostly damage caused by frozen pipes.

An ice storm in January 2004 along the I-20 corridor caused $20 million in private insurance claims, $28 million in government expenses and $15 million in costs for power line repairs by SCE&G.

That 2004 storm was almost exclusively freezing rain and ice. Thousands and thousands of young pine trees were bent to the ground with ice. And while some limbs fell on power lines, other power lines snapped simply from the weight of half an inch of ice. Boomhower said that depending on the length of the line, a quarter inch of ice can add up to 500 pounds to the span.

The frozen precipitation also makes for busy days and nights for state and county road crews, who were poised to spread sand on highways on Tuesday and to remove snow on Wednesday.

Nobody likes freezing rain and ice, but kids love big snowflakes. Unfortunately, the stickiness that makes big, wet snowflakes good for building snowmen helps them stick to tree limbs and leaves.

The snow then will strain trees with dying limbs or poor architecture – limbs that are too long and trunks that split in odd shapes, Boone said. Wet snow also tends to clump in the leaves of evergreens.

As the air cools farther below freezing, snow typically comes down in smaller flakes that cause few problems for trees, Boone said.

The forecasts for the arrival of freezing rain, sleet and snow in the Midlands are all over the map, but the most snow is expected late Tuesday and early Wednesday, when temperatures are in the mid-20s. However, there’s a chance in the Midlands of ice accumulations during the day Tuesday followed by big flakes of snow around sundown with temperatures around 32.

“I’m afraid looking at the forecasts,” Boone said.

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