- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 12, 2014

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.

“We do ask for everyone’s patience,” Haley said.

Haley said more than 300 officers from state agencies were helping respond to a rash of accidents around the state, including two fatal crashes.

“We need to make sure that everyone understands, you really have to proceed with caution,” the governor said. A dozen shelters were also open throughout the state so that people have a warm place to stay.

As day broke, sleet began pinging off windows in Columbia and by rush hour, most of the streets were empty with only handful of cars crossing a bridge to the city’s downtown and entertainment district. Streets nearby were covered with a mixture of snow and sleet, unvarnished by any vehicle tracks.

The SEC basketball game between the University of South Carolina and Vanderbilt, scheduled for Wednesday night in Columbia, was postponed until Thursday. The university announced it would not hold classes on Thursday.

Mindy Taylor, 43, was at a grocery store, looking for rock salt, kitty litter or anything else that could help melt ice. It took her 15 minutes to drive from her home as the snow was falling.

“I hate driving on this.” she said. “Hopefully, it’ll warm up by the weekend and it will all melt. I’m ready for spring.”

In Myrtle Beach, which attracts millions of visitors every summer, cars were coated with a thick crust of ice and ice frosted palm trees and idle kiddie rides at the popular Broadway at the Beach tourist attraction.

In Charleston, the towering Ravenel Bridge across the Cooper River was closed because of ice just as it was two weeks ago.

SCE & Gas brought in contract crews from utilities in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky to help its 1,200 workers restore power.

Schools and government offices were closed in most counties across the state, as were VA outpatient clinics and the Savannah River Site near Aiken. Only essential personnel were told to report to Joint Base Charleston.


Associated Press Writers Meg Kinnard in West Columbia, S.C., Susanne Schafer, Seanna Adcox and Jack Jones in Columbia, S.C., and Associated Press Correspondent Mitch Weiss in Greenville, S.C., contributed to this story.

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