UPDATED 6:30 A.M. The weather systems that brought a winter storm to the Myrtle Beach area this week have since continued to swirl northward, but Horry County officials said a disaster was left in the path.
While widespread power outages and reports of fallen power lines continued late Thursday, and Conway officials opened an emergency shelter for people without electricity, residents can look forward to slightly warmer temperatures to return by Friday.
At 6 a.m. Friday, Mollie Gore, a spokeswoman with Santee Cooper, said that about 2,700 customers in Horry County remain without power, while 350 customers in Georgetown County are also without electricity.
"The areas with the most outages are Myrtle Beach and Conway," Gore said. "Our crews will continue to make repairs, and they will be joined today by crews from Tennessee."
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Even with the warmer weather on the way, the impacts from the ice and cold remain in downed trees and power lines, and thousands without electricity, so Horry County officials deemed their response as “disaster operations” stage, said Lisa Bourcier, Horry County spokeswoman. The declaration means county officials have activated their emergency plans but did not open the county’s emergency operations center.
The plans include how to respond to the debris cleanup from the storm.
“Issues throughout the county continue to be downed tree limbs, causing roads to be blocked and downed power lines,” Bourcier said. “Some of the hardest hit locations are Conway, Aynor, Loris and Green Sea. Sporadic power outages continue and residents should contact their local power provider to report any outages. Drivers are urged to use caution due to tree debris and downed power lines.”
County officials will continue to work to remove debris from roadways and they will accept yard debris at any of the 24 recycling centers, Bourcier said. Officials also warned residents to be safe while removing debris from their yards.
The winter storm warnings for the area were canceled Thursday morning, but forecasters with the National Weather Service in Wilmington, N.C., warned of more rain with possible frozen precipitation.
“We are still expecting a light wintry mix later mainly across the inland counties as the upper low passes through the region,” said Michael Caropolo, meteorologist with the weather service. “Ice on roadways, trees and power lines can still be a problem through this afternoon until temperatures warm more. Winds will result in additional tree, limbs and power lines down – this will cause more power outages and possibly road blockage.”
Most temperatures in the area were at or above freezing, but there were reports to forecasters of light freezing rain, Caropolo said at 11:30 a.m. Thursday. Winds will gust up to 30 mph with sustain westerly winds between 15 mph and 25 mph.
“Temperatures overnight will drop back below freezing, especially inland, so black ice will become an issue,” Caropolo said. “On Friday, temperatures warm nicely into the 40s and 50s.”
Because of widespread power outages, Conway officials planned to open an emergency shelter at 1 p.m. Thursday at the Conway Recreation Center at 1515 Mill Pond Road, said Lt. Selena Small with Conway police. The shelter is open to Conway area residents who are without power and in need of shelter.
People staying at the shelter should bring their own supplies, including baby items for their children; blankets, sleeping bags or pillows; entertainment, such as games; flashlights with batteries; clothing; identification; medication; snacks and toiletries. Guns, alcohol and animals are not permitted.
A shelter was opened Wednesday in Myrtle Beach and five people had sought refuge there by 11 a.m. Thursday, according to officials with the S.C. Emergency Management Division.
Georgetown County opened shelters Wednesday evening in Hemingway and Andrews.
Utility crews continued to work to remove downed trees and restore power lines, but thousands in Horry and Georgetown counties remained without electricity.
For example, the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina reported there were 117,000 customers of electric cooperatives without power around 6:30 a.m. Friday, that number was down from more than 133,000 reported at 10:30 p.m. Thursday.
Santee Cooper’s outages peaked at around 30,000 during the height of the storm Wednesday afternoon.
“We have had very high call volume, which makes getting through difficult at times, but we are aware of and working on the outages,” Gore said. “We thank customers for their continued patience as our crews work through these difficult conditions, and we will post updates on Facebook and Twitter.”
Horry Electric Cooperative’s online outage website showed at 6:30 a.m. Friday that there were 577 outages impacting 9,355 members, which was down from 2 p.m. Thursday when 676 outages impacted 14,008 members. Their crews also continued to work to restore the utility.
Horry Electric’s telephone lines to their office also were restored overnight after being out for much of the day on Wednesday. Some area radio and television stations were off the air because of the power outages early Thursday.
Road crews with the S.C. Department of Transportation said that most roads were wet from rain, but there were no major issues at 12:30 p.m. Thursday. Road temperatures in the area ranged from 31 to 38 degrees and crews also worked to clear fallen trees and debris. Priority routes and bridges continue to be treated as needed with anti-icing and de-icing materials and equipment.
Across the state there were 1,455 DOT maintenance workers actively involved in road operations, de-icing roads with a supply of 12,598 tons of salt and 713 pieces of equipment in use, state officials said at 1 p.m. Thursday. Other activities included 354 public safety officers who worked rotating shifts to respond to 925 weather-related calls for service from 6 p.m. Wednesday to 6 a.m. Thursday. Those calls included 178 crashes, 366 trees in the roadways, 61 abandoned vehicles and 276 calls for motorists assistance.
State officials also deployed 182 National Guard soldiers to help with highway operations, including 14 wrecker crews and an additional 30 dump trucks hauling 600 tons of salt inland from Charleston, state emergency officials said. There were 37 shelters opened in the state with 193 people staying in them.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama declared South Carolina a federal disaster area after Gov. Nikki Haley said she preemptively petitioned for the declaration because of widespread power outages and damage. The declaration makes the state eligible for financial help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Forecasters predicted temperatures would heat up to 40 degrees during the day, but a 50 percent chance of rain remained in the area until 5 p.m. Thursday. Some of that rain could be sleet or freezing rain in the inland areas until temperatures warm up. The winter storm was expected to be out of the area by Thursday evening leaving drier conditions for the overnight and Friday.
Sunny skies will return Friday with a daytime high expected to be near 56 degrees and an overnight low near 40 with a 30 percent chance of showers.
“The upper low associated with this system will move across the region later today,” Caropolo said. “We could see another round of mainly light wintry weather across the Pee Dee region and inland N.C. counties with some light rain or perhaps a snow shower towards the coast. Little additional accumulations are likely. But in the areas that are below freezing even a few hundredths of an inch of precipitation can result in ice accretion.”
As temperatures warm up and residents begin to clean up their properties of downed trees and limbs, officials urge them to do so safely.
“It’s expected that many homeowners may attempt tree clearing in the wake of the ice storm,” said Scott Hawkins, spokesman for the S.C. Forestry Commission. “Although widely available to the general public, [chainsaws and other] machines are quite powerful and potentially deadly if used incorrectly by unskilled hands. . . . SCFC reminds everyone that the danger lies not only in the blade of the machine, but the energy in a large tree you unleash when a cut is made.”
Due to warmer weather conditions expected this weekend, homeowners are urged to use extreme caution when burning vegetative debris that has fallen from the winter storm, Bourcier said. Here are some tips for outdoor burning: establish wide control lines down to bare mineral soil at least five-feet wide around any burn barrels and even wider around brush piles and other piled debris to be burned; stay with all outdoor fires, until they are completely out; keep water and hand tools ready in case your fire should attempt to spread; homeowners are responsible for the control of their outdoor fires.
In North Myrtle Beach, sanitation crews will pick up fallen tree limbs that have been cut to 4 feet or less in length, said Pat Dowling, city spokesman. Property owners can place the limbs curbside, but city workers will not collect tree trunks or debris cut by professional tree services.
In Georgetown County, property owners are asked to make sure debris piles don’t block the right-of-way, obstruct fire hydrants or utility meters or block drains and ditches which poses a risk of flooding, said county spokeswoman Jackie Broach.
Nine community recycling centers and the landfill on S.C. 51 are open in Georgetown County. Broach said the amount of yard waste accepted at the facilities is limited and residents may be redirected to the landfill if capacity is exceeded or if the resident has large amounts of debris.
Starting Thursday, the landfill is not charging a disposal fee for storm-related debris, Broach said. The discount will expire, but Broach said a time has not been determined as of 2 p.m. Thursday. For more information call the Georgetown County Division of Environmental Services at 545-3443.
Hawkins and the forestry commission offered these tips for safe tree removal:
Wear protective goggles, chaps, gloves and hearing protection.
Downed trees and limbs can be under a lot of stress. Watch for moving pieces when your chainsaw relieves that stress. A chainsaw operator can be pinned or injured from suddenly moving limbs.
Watch for “kickback” from the chainsaw.
Avoid cutting over your head or from a ladder.
If you don’t know how to tackle a clean-up or if the job is too big, hire an experienced and insured professional.
Children should never be allowed to operate a chainsaw and should be kept away from downed trees.
Be aware that a fallen tree may have taken a live power line with it.
Never operate a chainsaw alone. Have a buddy or responsible family member on hand in case something goes wrong.
Reporter Amanda Kelley contributed to this story.