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Widespread power outages striking S.C., parts of N.C.

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JOHN SIMMONS - jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com
Firefighters said heavy snow caused a building to collapse at University Hills Baptist Church at Suther Road and Old Concord Road near UNC Charlotte.

More than 230,000 customers are without power in South Carolina, and N.C. and S.C. officials are concerned that more outages are coming to the Carolinas from the powerful winter storm that is pummeling the area.

National Weather Service meteorologists cannot rule out the possibility that damaging levels of ice could accumulate in southeastern Mecklenburg County. And accumulations of ice are predicted for areas south and southeast of Charlotte, which could add to the threat of power outages.

Shortly before 11 p.m. Duke Energy reported about 2,600 power outages in its Carolinas coverage area. More than 1,500 of those were reported in Lancaster County, S.C., according to Duke’s outage map. In Mecklenburg County, only 2 outages were reported, outside of Mint Hill.

In South Carolina, 230,000 electric cooperative customers were without power around 6 p.m., The (Columbia) State newspaper reports, a dramatic increase from the 104,000 customers without power around noon.

Forecasters say the heaviest ice accumulations — and the worst damage to power lines — is expected in a corridor from Athens, Ga., across Columbia and Florence, S.C., and then up through Fayetteville and Raleigh.

At 8 p.m., officials with N.C.’s electric cooperatives said about 27,700 outages had been reported, all in the southeastern part of the state.

“This has all the makings of a historic ice storm from northern Georgia to central and upstate South Carolina to central North Carolina,” said Mark Mancuso, a meteorologist with Accu-Weather, one of the nation's leading private weather companies.

According to the ice forecast issued at 7:30 p.m. by the National Weather Service, Monroe could see nearly half an inch of ice building on trees and power lines, the highest predicted level in the area.

At a press conference Wednesday, Gov. Pat McCrory said, “This is going to be a tough 48 hours, but we have a good team ready to respond.... We need every individual to be ready in their homes and workplaces. Have your flashlights and batteries ready.”

In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley said the storm was going to be worse than the one in 2004 where more than 200,000 people lost power.

Preparing for the worst

Duke Energy brought in about 500 workers from the Midwest and Florida to supplement its Carolinas crews, spokeswoman Meghan Musgrave said. They will help crews already on the ground deal with what Musgrave called an unpredictable and evolving storm.

She said Duke Energy now has about 3,400 field workers across the Carolinas available to help with power restoration.

Duke Energy also had been staging crews — positioning workers and trucks at certain key locations, ready to deploy resources to impacted areas — in Greensboro and Florence, S.C.

Duke Energy has about 3.2 million customers in North Carolina and another 715,000 in South Carolina. As of 6 p.m., officials said roughly 130,000 outages had been reported across both states.

At 8:30 p.m., Duke Energy officials said its current outages were mainly in the Duke Energy Progress service area near Wilmington, N.C., Florence, S.C. and Hartsville, S.C. But they believe the outage numbers will continue to rise, as much of the company’s service area could see more snow, sleet and freezing rain before the storm is over.

With power outages, the priority is to restore power to hospitals and first responders, then to areas that help the largest number of customers, Musgrave said.

The Union Power Cooperative, which covers more than 69,000 homes and businesses in Union, Mecklenburg, Stanly, Cabarrus and Rowan counties, also was staging crews, spokeswoman Carrie Stroud said. “It does look like this will be one of the more significant (storms) we’ve seen,” she said.

Just before 11 p.m. Union Power reported one outage, affecting between 10 and 50 customers, east of Albemarle.

Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. – which serves roughly 74,000 members in Caldwell, Watauga, Ashe, Alleghany, Wilkes, Avery and Alexander Counties – reported no outages at 11 p.m., but said linemen will remain on high alert.

“Temperatures are staying around 21 degrees, which is producing a drier snow,” said Robert Kent, director of operations for Blue Ridge Electric. “Drier snow doesn’t weigh heavily on tree limbs and power lines; it won’t cause the damage and outages that a heavier, wetter snow can cause.”

South Carolina state officials also prepared residents for the worst.

“Utility companies began on Monday to position personnel and equipment to best address anticipated service outages,” said Derreck Becker, of South Carolina Emergency Management.

But he added, “Forecasters are predicting extremely hazardous conditions which will cause power outages and substantial structural damage due to falling trees and ice. Residents should be prepared for the loss of electricity to their home for extended periods of time.”

Officials with the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina said 22 line workers from Kentucky arrived Wednesday to help with power restoration. They said electric companies in Florida and Mississippi have agreed to send up to 300 workers if needed.

“If this storm produces an inch of ice, we’re going to need as much help as we can get,” said Todd Carter, vice president of loss control and training at the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina. “Right now, we have almost 300 linemen on stand-by to help. We’ll draw crews from Mississippi, Florida, as well as more linemen from Kentucky.

“We’re hoping the forecast is wrong,” says Carter. “But folks should be ready. There’s potential for widespread damage. If the predictions hold up, we’ll be facing a monumental job in the upcoming days.”

Tips

Officials offered these tips:

•  Check your supply of flashlights, batteries, bottled water, medicine and non-perishable foods.

•  Keep a portable, battery powered radio or TV on hand.

•  Never try to heat your home with a gas grill or by bringing a generator inside. They create carbon monoxide. Only operate that equipment outdoors in well-ventilated areas.

•  Check on family or friends with special medical needs to ensure that they have the necessary supplies.

•  Stay away from sagging or fallen power lines, and assume all such lines are energized, along with any trees or limbs touching them.

•  If power is lost, turn off as many appliances and electronics as possible. That helps with restoration efforts as it reduces the immediate demand on power lines when power is restored.

•  Keep portable space heaters at least three feet away from any combustible material, such as drapes, carpeting and furniture. Turn off those heaters before you go to bed.

The (Columbia) State contributed.

Bell: 704-358-5696; Twitter: @abell

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