FLORENCE, S.C. — As of late Thursday afternoon the Florence County Emergency Management Department said just over 38,400 locations — both homes and businesses — remained without power, a number that fluctuated up and down throughout the day of clean up.
Crews from the county public works department, SCDOT, Duke Energy Progress and Santee Cooper made significant progress throughout the day Thursday with assessing damage and debris and removing trees from roadways, as well as restoring power. But the forecast for Thursday night was not promising for keeping those newly cleared roads debris-free, according to Kristy Hughes, natural hazards coordinator for the Florence County Emergency Management Division.
“We’ve made a good bit of progress today but tonight with forecasts of 15 to 20 mph winds and gusts up to 30 overnight, with the amount of ice that is still on the trees we could be starting over in our clean up process tomorrow,” Hughes said.
Much hoped-for warmer temperatures and melting didn't materialize Thursday and a sizeable ice load remained in trees and on power lines and the wind will increase the risk of trees that didn't fall the night before coming down Thursday night, Hughes said.
Earlier in the day she urged residents to be patient with the prolonged cleanup process, and also to use extreme caution while cleaning up their own yards and while traveling.
As of Thursday evening the department was still operating at OPCON 2, the second highest operations level.
Two shelters remained open in FlorenceCounty -- LakeCity and SouthFlorenceHigh Schools, Hughes said. A special needs shelter at Carolinas Hospital System remained open as well, she said.
LakeCityHigh School, where about 30 people sought shelter, lost electricity for a while as did South Florence during the afternoon. By early evening both shelters had power.
At the Red Cross shelter at South Florence high school, individuals and families affected by the winter weather were trickled into the school's cafeteria all afternoon, with about 35 seeking shelter by the evening, when supplies for the night and cots had been delivered.
"It was too cold. It was overwhelming," Demetres Rush said."We endured last night."
"It could be worse. We're lucky we have a place to go," Bessie Teaste said.
While county officials were working to get power restored to SouthFlorenceHigh School, Howe Springs firefighters worked to install a generator and some light towers.
Temperatures in Florence reached 33 degrees around noon but are forecast to drop back below freezing with official expecting a repeat of what residents had Wednesday night -- repeated power outages.
The Florence County Sheriff’s Office advised that the forecast will make for continued hazardous conditions, and though most of Florence’s major roadways were passable by late in the day, “they are by no means completely free of frozen precipitation, and downed power lines and tree limbs remain a hazard. Traffic signals at many intersections are not functioning, making these areas extremely dangerous.”
Motorists were urged to use extreme caution and only drive if necessary.
Statewide 326,000 utility customers remained without electricity at as of 4 p.m., though Duke Energy has restored power to more than 86,000 customers with approximately 90,000 customers still out of power, according to a release issued by Gov. Nikki Haley's office. Duke Energy was expecting an additional 500 workers from out-of-state to arrive Thursday, according to the governor's office release.
Including in-state utility crews, 11 other states have sent crews and personnel to assist South Carolina utilities: Alabama, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
While power crews worked to restore and maintain power Florence County Emergency Management officials worked with their crews in the field to conduct a countywide damage assessment necessary for the county to have a chance at a disaster area declaration.
Hughes asked that county residents whose primary residences suffered structural damage as a result of the ice storm to call into the Emergency Operations Center to report the damage. The number, she said, is 843-665-7255.
The damage assessment will focus on damage to structures and the overall cost of cleaning up trees, tree limbs and other vegetative debris spread throughout FlorenceCounty, Dusty Owens, Florence County Emergency Management Division director, said.
Those two figures, he said, will be key in obtaining a more complete federal disaster area declaration beyond what has already been signed off on for the state.
"There’s a lot of debris down in the roadways and yards. We know there's a lot, just don't know how much," Owens said.
FlorenceCounty damage assessment teams will have 800 square miles to work their way through and it may take more than a day, Owens said.
SCDOT road crews in Dillon, Marlboro, Darlington and part of Florence Counties are still out plowing snow, Treasure Scarborough, assistance district maintenance engineer, said.
Southern Florence County -- Pamplico, Johnsonville and LakeCity -- along with Timmonsville seemed to get hit worse by the storm than did the Florence area, Owens said.
Scanner traffic Thursday morning was full of tree down, limb down and road blocked reports from across FlorenceCounty. Such reports continued throughout the day as SCDOT crews and Florence County firefighters responded to reports of trees down, power lines on fire and roads blocked by downed trees in tandem with utility lines.
SCDOT crews are still trying to clear secondary and back roads of snow and ice, and doing a lot of tree debris removal at the same time, Lorena Pate with SCDOT Engineering District 5, said.
District wide, 202 workers are in the field with equipment that includes backhoes, snow plows, motor graters, spreaders for salt and sprayers for brine, Pate said.
Treasure Scarborough, assistant district maintenance engineer, Thursday morning said he expected SCDOT crews to remain on a 24 hour schedule at least into the weekend.
FlorenceCounty has had about 30 tree reports called in, Pate said.
WilliamsburgCounty has had the worst tree issues, hardest hit with ice causing vegetative debris, but phone issues in the county have kept SCDOT officials from working up an official tally, Pate said.
Crews have responded to about half of the region's tree reports have been responded to by crews if only to assess the situation.
Many downed trees involve downed power lines, so crews have to move on from those locations until power crews can deal with the wire, Pate said.
"Our first priority is to open the roads," Scarborough said. "The follow up will be to remove the debris from the rights of way."
Toward those ends, Scarborough said much of the debris will just be pushed off the road and to the side of the road initially before crews return to either pick it up or otherwise remove it from the right of way by pushing it off into nearby woods.
"I couldn't even take a guess," about the volume of debris already cleared from roads, Scarborough said.
Ultimately SCDOT officials want to work with county solid waste authorities to accommodate debris disposal, he said.
If the volume exceeds disposal capacity then SCDOT officials will react as they do during hurricanes and work on establishing central locations where the debris can be collected and stored to either be mulched or recycled.
"Cold, wet, rainy, messy, froze and hard to drive," Capt. Andy Locklair, Darlington County Sheriff's Office, said of Darlington County Thursday morning as he drove in to work at the county's emergency operations center.
Marion County Administrator Tim Harper said 93 percent of MarionCounty was without power Thursday.
DillonCountySchool District 3 Superintendent John Kirby said his schools along with neighboring Dillon District 4 Schools would be closed Friday.
“We have no electricity and it probably won’t be up until Sunday or Monday,” Kirby said.
An average Wednesday -- from 7 a.m. Wednesday - 5 a.m. Thursday -- involves 838 calls to FlorenceCounty's 911 communications center and 335 of those calls involve dispatching responders.
Wednesday into early Thursday this week involved 2,260 calls to the communications center and 784 of those calls involved dispatching responders, Owens said.
The 2,260 figure doesn't include calls that came directly to the Florence County Emergency Operations Center which was has been staffed -- about 11 people a shift -- since the storm started Wednesday, Owens said.
For some of those dispatches emergency responders counted on the county's volunteer firefighters to clear the road of trees and debris to get through, Sam Brockington, FlorenceCounty fire and rescue services coordinator, said.
The county's fire departments are, for the most part, working off emergency power and Brockington said he expected it would be "days" before power is fully restored.
Until then, Brockington said firefighters along with other emergency responders out in the field are conducting windshield surveys to assist county emergency management staff with the overall damage assessment.
As dangerous as the storm was as it rolled through, Owens and Locklair both said the cleanup would be equally dangerous if residents aren't careful.
"We have to get through today and tomorrow," Locklair said.
"Do not handle or go near any power lines. Even if they're down they're still electrified," Owens said. "Don't attempt to cut tree debris entangled in power lines."
Chain saws are a common cause of injury during cleanup and somebody will inevitably fall off their roof, Owens said.
Owens also said people should be aware of the hazards of carbon monoxide poisoning is they used gas heaters or had electric generators running and that people should use flashlights rather than candles to light the dark.