The worst winter storm in a decade pummeled South Carolina on Wednesday, dumping snow and sleet and cutting power to 245,000 customers at one point as President Barack Obama declared the state a federal disaster area.
Forecasters predicted the storm could dump as much as 10 inches of snow in the Upstate and, perhaps more seriously, leave an inch of ice elsewhere to snap power lines and tree branches.
The number of customers left in the dark by late afternoon approached the 250,000 who lost power in January of 2004, when three-quarters of an inch of ice coated trees and power lines. That storm left some people in the dark for a week.
“The numbers and conditions look like it’s going to be worse than the storm of 2004,” Gov. Nikki Haley warned during a midday news conference.
Upstate South Carolina looked more like Upstate New York in winter with snow and ice coating trees and covering roadways.
For Nate Brown of Greenville, a 68-year-old retired teacher, it was the ice - not the snow - that was his main concern after he lost electricity for nearly a week in in the earlier storm.
“This has been the worst winter in a long time. It gets hot, then cold. We’ve had snow. Now they’re predicting ice with the snow. It’s just been awful,” he said.
The most widespread power outages were in the Aiken area and in Berkeley and Dorchester counties northwest of Charleston. By early evening about 238,000 power customers statewide were without power.
Mark Quinn, a spokesman for the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, said that about 120,000 customers of the state’s 20 electric cooperatives were in the dark as ice-coated tree limbs and power lines snapped. He said the problem would likely get worst with winds expected to pick up to 20 mph overnight Wednesday.
“In Berkeley County some of the old-timers are saying it reminds them of Hugo because of the limbs down,” he said. Hugo, which struck north of Charleston with 135 mph winds in 1989, cut a swath of destruction through the county as it headed inland toward Charlotte, N.C.
South Carolina Electric & Gas reported that about 86,000 of its customers were without power late Wednesday, down from 95,000 earlier in the day.
“Ice accumulation, which is the greatest threat to South Carolina and its citizens, is expected to impact over 80 percent of the state with amounts of greater than .25 inches,” Haley wrote the president in asking for the disaster declaration. She warned some areas could be without power as long as two weeks.
The disaster declaration from the president meant the state would be eligible for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 75 percent of which would be paid for by the federal government.
Haley said 600,000 people lived in an area expecting an inch of ice or more. A day earlier, the governor had declared a state of emergency in South Carolina, bringing the National Guard to active duty to support state agencies with its wrecker teams and four-wheel drive vehicles. It also activated the state’s Emergency Operations Plan.
The governor urged people not to drive. It also said 1,500 state Department of Transportation workers were plowing and laying down tons of salt to fight icy conditions. At midday, all the state’s interstate highways were passable.