Update: Power outages down to 125,000 statewide

Update (5:29 pm Saturday): More than 125,000 customers in South Carolina still were without power Saturday afternoon, largely in the hard-hit Aiken and coastal areas.

Electric utilities expected to work through the weekend to restore power to those who lost it during a harsh statewide ice and snow storm that lasted Tuesday through Thursday.

The storm knocked out power to more than 346,000 households in the state at its peak Thursday morning. Electricity has been restored slowly even as most traces of ice and snow are melting away in the warmer temperatures and sunshine.

By Saturday afternoon, crews still were working on 125,957 outages, utilities reported. The S.C. Electric Cooperatives had 68,670 outages, while S.C. Electric & Gas had 37,642 and Duke Energy Progress had 19,487 in South Carolina.

At the storm’s peak, 28 warming shelters housed 415 people, helped by about 100 Red Cross employees and volunteers and 60 state Social Service Department employees, according to the State Emergency Operations Center. The state health department opened seven special medical needs shelters that housed 34 occupants.

Original story State officials had heard for days how the 2014 winter ice storm walloped South Carolina’s midsection from Aiken County to the southern Pee Dee, and power outage figures backed up those claims.

But the toll that three-quarters of an inch to 1½ inches of ice took on well-established, signature old trees, quaint cottages and lush parkways and streets caught power company officials, community leaders and others by surprise.

“It’s devastating,” Gov. Nikki Haley said Friday after touring parts of the city of Aiken, including the seven miles from the municipal airport to the city’s downtown district. “What we are seeing here is worse than I think we would see with a hurricane. We have seen how tough and how damaging ice can be.”

Even as Haley met with local mayors, county officials and General Assembly members on one side of the main street through the city, workers in bucket trucks and on the ground labored to cut off mangled limbs and toppled trees directly across the street.

All across the city, the county, and in surrounding villages such as Graniteville and Warrenville, nearby cities such as North Augusta and adjoining counties such as Edgefield, power outages raged for the third straight day. For the first time since the storm hit early Wednesday, though, many businesses re-opened.

More than 51,000 Aiken residents remained without power at midday Friday, the governor said. About 205,000 across the state were without power late Friday, down from a high of 350,000 at the peak of the storm. Power companies warned that some customers won’t have power until early next week.

The S.C. Insurance News Service gave a preliminary estimate of insured damage of at least $15 million, though that likely will rise. Forestry officials said the damage to the timber industry could be comparable to the 2004 ice storm that caused $95 million in destruction.

Nowhere was the ice storm’s effect more visible than through Aiken’s historic winter colony area, along oak- and mansion-lined South Boundary and Colleton Avenue, where wealthy Northerners used to spend their winters training thoroughbred horses, hunting with hounds and enjoying steeplechase.

Crews spent the past two days just clearing the iconic vista enough for cars to pass through. Trees were on top of houses or at the front door in several cases.

“We have seen basically the landscape of this community has been completely damaged from this storm,” Haley said.

“It’s a disaster zone. Aiken is a disaster zone,” said longtime Aiken Mayor Fred Cavanaugh, who remained without power at his Kalmia Hills neighborhood at noon.

While the sun came out Friday and Haley declared the state’s interstates “passable” and primary roads in good condition, she warned that secondary roads remained dangerous and urged driver caution throughout the weekend.

“To this community, I want to say thank you for your patience,” said Keller Kissam, SCE&G operations director. “We take it personally. We feel that anytime that your lights are out, we are letting you down.”

Both SCE&G and Aiken Electric Cooperative, which cover the Aiken area, said they were working around the clock to restore power.

“As we put these back up, they were torn back (the first couple of days of the storm),” said Gary Stukesbury, Aiken Electric Cooperative president. “The good news about today…is what we put up today will stay in the air. What we repair today, will stay repaired. We’re gonna touch it one time.”

Several power company officials have compared the ice storm’s damage to the devastation reeked by Hurricane Hugo.

“This is worse than we thought for this area,” said Dukes Scott, executive director of the S.C. Public Service Commission.

Haley went on to tour Colleton County, where Lowcountry residents also were hammered by the ice storm. In fact, the damage was extraordinary in a quadrangle from Aiken down to Hampton over to Moncks Corner and up to Florence.

The American Red Cross said 419 people stayed in 19 shelters Thursday night to escape the cold in homes without electricity. That’s more shelter use than during some coastal hurricane evacuations in recent years.

At least seven state parks in the Lowcountry and Midlands were closed early Friday because they had significant tree damage or no power, or both. Those were Aiken, Barnwell, Colleton, Givhans Ferry, Poinsett, Redcliffe and Santee.

With claims still rolling in, the S.C. Insurance News Service estimated the insured damage from the storm will top $15 million in the state.

By noon, the major insurance companies that report to the S.C. Insurance News Service had received about 1,200 auto claims and about 2,000 homeowner claims related to the storm, according to Russ Dubisky, the service’s executive director.

The greatest economic damage could be to timber, the state’s top cash crop, bringing in $679 million annually. The S.C. Forestry Commission said it’s too early to have an accurate assessment of the damage from this storm, but all indications are that it will be as high as the 2004 storm.

Typically, the worst damage is in pine plantations that have been thinned, leaving gaps for pines to bend and snap. Timber farmer John Spearman in the Williamsburg County community of Lane said he was having trouble assessing parts of his farm Friday because so many trees were across roads.

While damage didn’t appear to be devastating in the sections of his farm he could see, he did drive by one stand of pines that had been thinned recently by a neighbor. About 50 percent of the remaining trees appeared to have snapped in the ice.

Still, Spearman didn’t agree with those comparing the damage this week to the forest devastation from Hurricane Hugo.

“I was here during Hugo,” he said. “This is not Hugo damage, but it’s bad.”

Storm claims 5th victim

Authorities say a 72-year-old Hartsville man found dead on a baseball field not far from his home during this week’s winter storm died from the cold.

The Darlington County Coroner’s Office said John Griffith’s body was found around 5 p.m. Wednesday between the two rounds of winter weather. The temperature at the time was in the 20s.

Authorities ruled the cause of death as hypothermia. Deputies are still trying to figure out why Griffith left his apartment and where he was going. They do not suspect foul play.

Four other deaths in South Carolina have been blamed on this week’s winter storm.

-Associated Press

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