State, local agencies divide and conquer winter storm
After 2.5 inches of snow, sleet and freezing rain, three days of sub-freezing temperatures and a few, if any, weather-related power outages, some officials said Aiken County had a stroke of luck mixed into its brush with Old Man Winter.
Winter Storm Leon moved into the area on Tuesday night. In Aiken County, county and city offices closed, school was delayed or canceled and residents were urged to stay off the icy roadways.
Parts of the state were hit harder. In Charleston, the massive Ravenel Bridge was shut down for nearly 48 hours, and SCE&G reported that several thousand customers lost power.
In Atlanta, motorists were stranded on the sides of packed interstates, hundreds of vehicles were abandoned and some children even spent the night in school.
They've got the power
Aiken Electric Cooperative reported no power outages, according to spokeswoman Marilyn Gerrity, who said the area was “very, very fortunate.”
Maintaining the utility lines year-round, including trimming trees, is the primary reason Aiken Electric had “virtually” no outages, Gerrity said.
“It's something that you can't do overnight,” she said. “We built a very good system.”
Aiken Electric had a conference call with 20 other co-ops around the state as the storm approached, during which they discussed needs and potential problems they may have in their areas.
“Our crews are first ready to work our system, and then depending on our status, they could be made available to go elsewhere in the state,” she said. Crews as far away as Mississippi are available to come help if the need arises.
SCE&G's hardest hit areas included the Lowcountry, which saw about 8,000 power outages at some point during the storm, according to spokesman Eric Boomhower. That was a little over 1 percent of the company's 675,000 customers.
Boomhower said tree trimming is the primary means of preparing for severe weather throughout the year. SCE&G also held a conference call several days before the storm and had “friends” ready to support them.
“We did reach out and had a couple of neighboring utilities that were ready to support us,” he said. “As it turned out, we did not have a big outage situation in our system.”
On the road again
Jeff Terry, a construction engineer with the S.C. Department of Transportation's Aiken office, said SCDOT sprang into action as soon as the storm appeared on radar. Resident Engineer Bobby Usry ordered the trucks to be equipped with snow plows and sand spreaders.
The department began developing its plan for winter weather in the hot months of August and September.
“They already know who's going to man which vehicle, who's going to be in the follow vehicles, who's going to be on the first shift,” Terry said.
Trucks were sent out to begin salting roadways and bridges before the first precipitation even fell, he said. SCDOT's first priority was interstate routes, followed by primary and secondary routes.
Terry said the SCDOT employees in Aiken County didn't have to go anywhere else, and that they didn't require employees from other areas to assist.
“The crews worked really hard,” said Terry, who himself worked 36 hours straight. “They came in, they worked hard and fast, they did what they had to do. They really stepped up.”
The S.C. Highway Patrol investigated two serious collisions in Aiken County during the storm, but investigators haven't determine if either was weather-related. The Aiken Department of Public Safety reported no road closures or major problems with traffic or roadways during and after the storm.
'We'll take luck any day'
As with other agencies, preparations for the storm on the county level began with a conference call, according to County Administrator Clay Killian. The call included National Weather Service forecasters and county emergency management officials from across the state.
“We have an agreement with the state Department of Transportation that we will take care of certain roads and they will take care of certain roads,” Killian said. “The main thing is to get the main roads cleared.”
Crews on Monday began staging the county's motor graters and dump trucks. With the Southeast rarely seeing severe winter weather, Killian said it's not economical to purchase the equipment that many Northern states have.
When it comes to ice, though, there's not much crews can do.
“Ice was a fear. There's not a whole lot you can do to ice,” he said. “We'll take luck any day.”
Killian applauded the county's collaboration with SCDOT.
“It's a coordinated effort,” he said. “I can't say enough about our guys getting in there and getting those roads down. To work all night is a tough thing to do out in the cold.”
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard. and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.