FLORENCE, S.C. — They don’t happen often, but when winter storms do occur in the Pee Dee, they can be crippling.
Ask any longtime Pee Dee resident about the worst storm in local history, and you’re likely to hear about two storms in particular: the great snow storm of 1973 and the crippling ice storm of 2004.
In 1973, the Pee Dee got the biggest snow it had ever seen. The Florence airport recorded 17 inches and points near Orangeburg got as much as 21. The area literally shut down for days. Even I-95 closed, leaving hundreds of motorists stranded. Some were evacuated by military helicopter.
“Seventeen inches is enough to stop things just about anywhere,” Florence Morning News columnist Thom Anderson, who was a reporter at the Morning News at the time, said.
“It started on Friday and continued all day Saturday,” Anderson said. “We didn’t have a Sunday paper that weekend. I feel pretty sure it’s the only time the paper ever missed a scheduled publication date. Just about everything but the hospitals and the police were closed for several days, and they had helicopters landing in the parking lot across from McLeod Hospital to move people around that had to be moved. It was incredible.”
Walking was basically the only mode of transportation, as buses, planes and trains were not running.
Because the storm produced blizzard-like conditions with blowing snow, most of the snow was blown off the power lines. As a result, most power lines remained intact and utility services held up well.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case when a surprise cold front hit Jan. 26, 2004, in the Pee Dee, bringing ice and sleet with it. A cold mass of air came to rest close to the ground, a phenomenon that when coupled with precipitation typically throws a wrench into computer forecast models.
Temperatures stayed in the 20s for days and ice buildup began to take its toll on power lines.
“I remember the forecast changed right at the end, and it gave us more trouble than we were expecting,” Alan Williams, a lineman with Duke Energy said. “I worked the Dillon, Marion, Aynor area. There was ice on all the trees, breaking our lines.”
Thousands went without power for several days, and sounds of explosion rang out in downtown Florence as fuses blew on transformers and power lines dropped.
“The storm in January 2004 was an ice storm that received a Presidential Disaster Declaration,” Kristy Hughes, Natural Hazards Coordinator with Florence County Emergency Management Division, said.
“We received around a half inch of ice with significant debris and damage,” Hughes said. “We, meaning Florence County, collected as much debris from the ice storm as we did from Hurricane Hugo. Now remember a great deal of debris from Hugo was cleaned up by locals citizens and those amounts were not recorded. But you can compare an ice storm debris total to that of a hurricane/tropical storm event. We also had some residents without power for close to two weeks in the Pamplico area. Pine trees do not do well with ice accumulations.”
Don Luehrs, who was a meteorologist with WBTW at the time, remembers the storm well. He said it was the worse in his tenure as a meteorologist in the Pee Dee.
“We live in Latta, and we were without power for about three and a half days,” Luehrs said. “I don’t remember it being a surprise because I remember looking at the models and telling my wife it was going to be a bad one. Snow is not nearly as devastating as ice because with snow, you don’t have the widespread power outages.”