Aiken bracing for a dangerous icy blast of winter weather
The Aiken area is bracing for a winter storm that has been classified as “dangerous” by the National Weather Service in Columbia. A warning is in effect from 7 p.m. this evening until noon on Thursday.
Rain is expected to change over to freezing rain tonight, and the precipitation will continue into Wednesday when temperatures might not rise above freezing. Ice accumulations ranging from a quarter to three-quarters of an inch are possible.
If that happens, travel conditions will become hazardous and there could be lengthy power outages.
“Whenever we get above a quarter of an inch of ice, we have concerns,” said Chris Cady, manager of supply chain and facilities for Aiken Electric Cooperative. “The weight on the power lines is a significant amount, and it can pull those lines down. Tree limbs will snap, and some of the smaller, less mature trees will bend over into the power lines.”
During a storm in late January, 2˝ inches of snow and some ice covered Aiken. But this time around, ice probably will dominate, and that isn't good news.
“When you're talking about ice, it's always the worst case scenario,” said Bobby Usry, a resident engineer for the S.C. Department of Transportation who is based in Aiken. “I am not looking forward to this situation at all.”
The weather pattern that will produce the wintry precipitation includes a Canadian high pressure centered to the north that is directing cold air into central South Carolina and the CSRA.
Low pressure that was developing in the Gulf of Mexico on Monday was supposed to push moisture northward and then move northeastward until it was near the Carolina coast on Wednesday night.
Today, locally, “there should just be some rain early because temperatures should be above freezing,” said Kim Campbell, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Columbia. “There may be some sleet developing by later in the afternoon, and there could be some snow flurries. After the sun sets, temperatures will start to fall. It looks like the rain will change to ice between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.,” said Campbell.
On Wednesday morning “it should be pretty messy outside with lots of ice,” Campbell said. “Along with the ice accumulation, we're expecting winds to be in the range of 12 to 15 miles per hour all day on Wednesday, and there could be a few higher gusts. That, in combination with ice on the power lines and ice on the tree branches, may cause some difficulties.”
Predictions call for the precipitation to end late on Wednesday night.
“This is the kind of event that will be pretty significant, and it will affect people being able to do their daily activities, such as driving and going to work,” Campbell said. “It is something they need to be aware of and they need to be prepared for.”
Twelve trucks traveled from the Department of Transportation's maintenance facility on University Parkway in Aiken to Columbia on Monday to pick up 130 to 150 tons of salt.
“We weren't completely out, but our stockpile was much lower than it needed to be because of the storm two weeks ago, and unfortunately, it had not been replenished,” Usry said.
The Department of Transportation's heavy equipment in Aiken includes 12 trucks with tailgate spreaders and plows attached, three trucks with calcium chloride (liquid salt) tanks and five motor graders.
“If we do get an ice event, we won't mobilize the motor graders because they can't push ice around like they do snow,” Usry said.
The first priority for Usry's crews will be Interstates 20 and 520. The second priority will be Highway 118 (the Aiken bypass), U.S. Route 1 and S.C. 19.
“We'll also try to focus on the critical routes in and out of the hospital (Aiken Regional Medical Centers),” Usry said.
Because rain was in the forecast, Usry wasn't planning for his crews to pretreat roadways early today.
“When it's raining, you can't just go out there and dump stuff on because it will wash right off,” he said. “We'll wait until later when the temperatures start getting lower.”
Because of the threat of ice accumulation, Aiken County Public Works Director John Dyches reported that his staff was preparing to deal with downed trees and fallen tree limbs.
“We're making sure we have our chainsaws ready and our heavy equipment fueled up,” he said. “If it doesn't pose a risk to our own personnel, we will go out and try to make sure that roads are clear or are at least open to one-direction travel. We'll try to keep people moving.”
Aiken County employees assist the Department of Transportation in removing snow from roads during and after winter storms. But when ice is the problem, there's not much the County can do.
“We have 11 motor graders, and we usually run five routes for the Department of Transportation,” Dyches said. “But with ice, there is very limited work that our motor graders can do, because you can't push ice out of the way with them.”
Aiken Electric Cooperative is ready for the latest round of winter weather locally, according to Marketing Specialist Muriel Carter.
“We'll have our crews on standby 24/7, and because we're a cooperative, we'll have crews from other states available to come in and help us repair lines if we need them,” she said.
SCE&G already has taken steps to increase its manpower.
“We are part of the Southeastern Electric Exchange, so we can ask other utilities to send crews when we are having an event like this,” said Emily Brady, SCE&G spokeswoman. “We put out a request for 200 people, and we're getting 250. If we see the weather is going to be worse than we thought, then we might request more.”
In addition, on Sunday, SCE&G recalled 140 contractors that it had released to go help following major winter weather problems in the Northeast recently.
“They're coming back right now,” said Brady on Monday night. “They had been in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland.”
She added that SCE&G officials were expecting “a pretty severe ice event.”
Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C., she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.