WILLISTON, S.C. — Ben Ziegler frowned grimly as he used borrowed equipment to cut firewood for his home on the third day without power to keep his wife and 14-month-old daughter along with a neighbor family of five warm.
“I got tired of this about five minutes after the lights went out,” the 33-year-old U.S. Army veteran said at a firewood stand near his Evans, Ga., neighborhood.
Despite their weariness, Ziegler and thousands of others in east Georgia and western and southern South Carolina may be without power for several more days. The nasty winter storm that blew through the South and eventually barreled up the East Coast dumped a tree-splitting, utility-pole-snapping inch of ice on the area and many, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, compared the damage to the aftermath of a hurricane.
“I didn’t know this was going to be in the same realm as Hugo,” Haley, who toured damaged areas Friday, said of the hurricane that struck in 1989. “To look at these neighborhoods and see the trees down and on houses — to see all of the devastation that’s happened to this community — is terrible.”
The same system dumped more than a foot or two of snow on parts of several states and was blamed for more than two dozen deaths, closed schools, snarled air traffic, caused countless crashed and delayed thousands of flower deliveries on Valentine’s Day.
The longest-lasting effect, however, was power.
About 1.2 million utility customers from the South to Northeast lost power at some point during from the South through the Northeast. That dramatically dropped to about 465,000 outages by Friday morning, mostly in South Carolina and Georgia. The numbers did keep dropping, but life without electricity after a third day was becoming a hassle.
With roads finally thawed out, many in the hardest hit areas were able to finally leave their homes. But there weren’t too many places to go. Few stores were open because they didn’t have power either.
Dollar General stores across the region let people shop by flashlight, but were only taking cash because they had no way of scanning credit cards. Intersections became risky games of chicken because traffic lights were out and deputies were elsewhere trying to help clear trees and limbs off roads and checking on older people and the sick.
Losing power in a rural area often means losing water, too. Many residents are on wells with pumps that need electricity to operate. Some people had buckets out to catch the melting ice so they could use the water to flush their toilets.
Tedda and Stan Howard were ready to wait a long time to get their power back from Aiken Electric Cooperative. During the day, they cut down broken branches and repaired fences so their goats wouldn’t escape from their 56 acres near Williston. At night, they huddle around the propane heater and played chess by candlelight. They had a neighbor who had power and offered them a warm shower.
“That ought to be enough. Hopefully they’ll have it back on by the weekend,” Tedda Howard said.
That seemed doubtful. Power lines were sagging to the ground or snapped in more than a dozen places on the two-lane highway by their home.
One coastal South Carolina electric cooperative lost 50 poles in the ice storm, compared to 21 in the last hurricane, officials said.
“With a hurricane, the storm blows through, does its damage and it’s gone. An ice storm is like a hurricane followed by a series of mini-hurricanes. You restore power to an area, but then the ice comes back and the same area goes down again,” said Bob Paulling, CEO of Mid-Carolina Electric Cooperative in Lexington.
Rural areas were hit the hardest and their geography means it will be much more difficult to get power restored, said Mark Quinn, spokesman for the South Carolina co-ops. In urban areas, one fix of a power line often turns electric back on for thousands of customers.
“Not only do you have less customers per line, but the terrain is also much tougher,” Quinn said. “We’re exposed more than any other utility.”
But for most folks, being without power was more of an annoyance. People told about learning that their tablet computer wouldn’t recharge with their car charger or were upset their DVR was missing recording their favorite shows.
Ziegler says he lives in the South in part so he doesn’t have to deal with winter weather that has been particularly harsh this season all over the country. Two storms in two weeks have been too much. The frown returned when he was told the Farmer’s Almanac predicted one final Southern winter storm for the end of the month.
“One storm was too much,” Ziegler said. “I’m ready to wear my shorts again.”