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York Co. 24/7 operations center activated; more snow expected

By Jonathan McFadden
jmcfadden@heraldonline.com

YORK COUNTY Weather officials say another heavy band of snow will move into the region Wednesday afternoon, possibly dumping up to 4 more inches of snow on the area.

Meteorologists expect the snow to fall at 2 inches per hour. Areas in the Charlotte-Metro region, especially Fort Mill, reported getting heavy snowfall in the early afternoon. Rock Hill has received a gradual downpour of sleet mixed with the snow.

York County emergency officials have activated a full-time emergency operations command center to compensate for conditions in the area, which they say will likely worsen throughout Wednesday.

The county's emergency management office's staffing level has been increased to a level 3, now manned by representatives with law enforcement, various fire departments, EMS and communications personnel who will monitor conditions in the county 24/7, said Cotton Howell, the county's emergency management director.

Level 5 consists of normal day-to-day operations, and level 4 comprises officials closely monitoring roads and responding to calls. Whether the staffing level increases to a 1 or 2 depends on the magnitude of the raging winter storm, Howell said. If the staffing level increases, the command center will pull in help from public works and public welfare employees.

Right now, "we're just staffed with public safety functions," he said. "We don't expect that to change overnight."

Officials are closely monitoring the forecast, paying close attention to the eastern side of the county, which is expected to see the most severe outpouring of snow, sleet and freezing rain. Howell estimated that the sleet would start in the county at about 2:30 p.m., followed by "the dreadful" freezing rain sometime after 5 p.m.

"The freezing rain potential" is what worries officials most, he said.

Road conditions in York, Chester and Lancaster counties are becoming treacherous from moderate, consistent snowfall. Motorists throughout the region are reporting slick conditions, especially on hills.

Local crews are focusing on the interstate and primary roads, said Jamie Fowler with the Department of Transportation and encouraging people to stay off the roads if at all possible. Temperatures statewide are well below freezing.

"We're getting lots of calls in and we understand the (secondary roads) are bad, but we just don't have the resources to do the interstate, the primaries and the secondaries all at the same time," Fowler said.

The DOT is doing everything in its snow plan, including plowing areas where snow is accumulating and salting, sanding and spreading brine on problem areas. Across York, Chester and Lancaster counties, 82 units were in operation, he said.

Typically the DOT depends on "Mother Nature" to clear the secondary roads after a big storm, said Pete Poore, director of communications. This week, however, that's not been possible, he said, because temperatures in many places around the state just aren't rising.

Reports have come in that Interstate 77 is covered in white. By the time crews finish plowing one lane, the next is already covered. Many exit ramps are covered in piles of snow.

The northern side of York County near the state line saw a mix of heavy snow and sleet by 1:30 p.m. Dozens of weary travelers who had enough of the road conditions on Interstate 77 stopped to rent rooms at hotels near Carowinds. Employees at the Motel 6 said several people checking in had decided that road conditions were not worth trying to move either north as the storm moves northward, or south back toward areas already slammed by the storm.

At the Comfort Inn just off Carowinds Boulevard, employees are prepared to stay at the hotel overnight to make sure that guests have services. "We have had many people walking in and others calling to see if there is a place to stay," said Vivian Thornton, one of the front desk employees at Comfort Inn. "We have several inches of snow here. It looks like it could even be close to a foot."

Gov. Nikki Haley encouraged residents to stay home and "hunker down."

"The roads are only going to get worse as the day goes on," she said during a press conference, surrounded by a phalanx of state emergency officials.

She also encouraged residents to prepare for power outages, but to do so safely. More than 82,000 people are already without power statewide, she said.

"Do not use candles if the power goes out," Haley said, calling them a fire hazard.

In Chester County, more than 60 Duke Energy customers reported that they did not have power.

The state Department of Transportation reports 16 crews are working 12-hour shifts around the state to coat roads with salt and anti-icing material. Gov. Nikki Haley scheduled a news conference for 11:45 a.m. to discuss the conditions. She has requested the federal government's help South Carolina cope with the storm.

All area schools and most government offices are closed Wednesday as meteorologists predict winter weather in the area will escalate from snow to sleet and freezing rain.

Emergency officials warn that roads could be slick Wednesday after Tuesday’s snow combined with falling temperatures overnight.

The worst of Winter Storm Pax is expected to hit the area with snow, ice and sleet throughout Wednesday. Forecasters expect Rock Hill and the surrounding areas to receive between 6 to 10 inches of snow accumulation.

Snow early Wednesday started falling in Oconee and Laurens counties. Richland, Kershaw, Lexington and Sumter counties were all sacked with sleet, freezing rain and ice. A winter storm warning for the Upstate region will remain in effect until 6 p.m. Thursday.

The heavy snow, combined with occasional sleet and freezing rain, will "make travel treacherous, if not impossible" in some areas, according to the National Weather Service. Power outages are expected, especially late Wednesday and Thursday morning.

Late Tuesday, the state emergency management office launched the emergency alert system in response to the weather service's grisly predictions of freezing rain and sleet. The storm is a much stronger than the system that visited the area earlier this month and is drawing moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, forecasters said. The storm is expected to strengthen as it moves along the coast late Wednesday before moving out by Thursday night.

By 9 a.m, Chester County was "whited out" with snow, said Eddie Murphy, director of the county's emergency management office. Many roads, he said, are covered, although primary roads are in better shape because they were heavily pre-treated with salt and brine.

Now, "our concern is the ice," he said, adding that his team is now considering the "worst case scenario" if several hundred people in emergency shelters have to be moved.

Emergency officials, he said, were also working on connecting power to furnaces and generators to heat gymnasiums in case of power outages.

Around 9:30, emergency officials in Lancaster recommended if people could get home, they should do so as soon as possible. Snow was falling across the county and sticking very quickly, making roads slick.

Roads in western York County are covered with snow. In rural Sharon, snow has fallen in heavy sheets.

"It's steady snow and we are busy with people buying kerosene, milk, bread and even beer," said Herschel Brown, owner of Brownie's store. "People seem to be hunkering down and heeding the warnings that later on it will be worse and they need to get home before it gets worse."

Inside the city of York, the York County seat where town offices are closed except for emergency personnel, roads are covered said Eddie Lee, mayor of York.

"We are prepared for this storm but I just came from touring the city and most places are covered," Lee said.

In Fort Mill, where thousands of people live yet commute to Rock Hill and Charlotte for work, even the main highway U.S 21 between Carowinds Boulevard and points south was snow covered as drivers tried to move around. At the intersection of U.S. 21 near the DMV office, a woman slid off the road while trying to turn, slamming a curb and demolishing the front passenger tire of her car.

Traffic was lighter than normal yet some drivers pushed onward at speeds as low as 10 MPH.

"I was sliding all over the road and I was going slow," said Billy Rydza, who had to get from Fort Mill to the Steele Creek area of south Charlotte to work at a restaurant. "I saw one lady go right off the road and into a ditch."

The intersection of U.S 21 and S.C. was 160 was snow-covered and in both directions on 160 into the Town of Fort Mill and west toward Baxter Village and Tega Cay, drivers moved as slow as 5 MPH in stop and go traffic.

Several businesses were closed, including the Peach Stand store that normally is a hive of activity.

Tony Walker, driving a four-wheel drive truck, stopped at the Times Turnaround store at the intersection of U.S. 21 and Old Nations Road to call his son and make sure that he got home safe from work and did not go out again.

"These roads are treacherous, even the main roads like this one and Interstate 77," Walker said. "I have four-wheel drive and I am still sliding all over the place. People need to get home, and stay home, because it is just going to get worse."

"We had no problems overnight or this morning but we are expecting it to get worse before it gets better," said Fort Mill Police Chief Jeff Helms.

DOT officials say they've more than 3,900 tons of salt, 876 tons of sand and about 796,000 tons of salt brine on roads statewide to prepare for Pax to rage.

Emergency officials are urging motorists to use caution when on the roads, but prefer that residents stay home if they can help it.

Warming centers stationed at Bethel United Methodist Church and the Salvation Army on Hope Street in Rock Hill are open, ready to accept York County residents needing shelter, said Gina Amato, disaster program manager with the Upper Palmetto Chapter of the American Red Cross.

"People just really need to stay home, as long as they have power," Amato said, stressing that residents should be preparing themselves for power outages.

"It might not be right away that we can get to somebody" because of the road conditions, she said. "Even the emergency workers will have a hard time."

York County Sheriff's patrol deputies are manning all-wheel drive sports utility vehicles to navigate through the snow, said Sheriff's Office spokesman Trent Faris.

"If there's a call, we go," he said, urging residents with health-related or medical emergencies to definitely call deputies.

Deputies have not taken too many calls Wednesday, Faris said, adding that many people are heeding warnings to stay off the perilous roads.

Howell, of emergency management, agreed. Travelers who were seen braving the roads in the morning left their homes before the snow started to descend again. "Once it started," it came fast and suddenly.

Faris issued a word of caution to residents.

"If you don't have to get out in it, don't," he said. "It's going to get worse as the time progresses when it starts sleeting and freezing rain in the later hours. Enjoy it with your family at home, play in it, but don't get out in it on the roads."

Andrew Dys, Rachel Southmayd and Anna Douglas have contributed to this report

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