Powerful storm could stymie Beaufort County travelers' Thanksgiving plans

dburley@islandpacket.comNovember 25, 2013 

A powerful, wintry storm lumbering toward the East Coast could complicate Thanksgiving travel plans for those heading to and from Beaufort County.

The storm system responsible for the weekend's icy conditions and hundreds of flight delays in Texas is churning eastward and should smack the Lowcountry with heavy rain Tuesday and Wednesday, two of the busiest travel days of the year.

"It's going to get real messy along the whole East Coast," said Brett Cimbora, meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

About 630,000 South Carolinians are expected to travel more than 50 miles from home this weekend, according to AAA.

As people hit the roads and airports, they should expect poor driving conditions and flight delays, especially in the Northeast, Cimbora said.

Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport, which is used by tourists vacationing in the Lowcountry, sees a balance of inbound and outbound travelers during the holidays, spokeswoman Lori Lynah said.

She said it was hard to predict weather delays in advance, but airport employees are prepared for the holiday's busy crowds and potential storms.

"It's always busy on Thanksgiving, so this year is no different," she said.

Lynah encouraged travelers to check their airlines' websites frequently for updates on postponed flights.

On the roads, AAA projects about 567,000 South Carolinians will drive to their destinations this Thanksgiving, an increase of about 11,600 travelers from 2012.

Highways will be most crowded -- and most dangerous -- on Wednesday and Sunday, according to AAA.

Major arteries such as Interstates 26, 77 and 95 will be heavily congested, S.C. Highway Patrol Sgt. Bob Beres said.

STORM ALREADY DEADLY

Last year, 13 people died in crashes on state highways over the holiday weekend, an 8 percent jump over the average daily fatality count for 2012, according to AAA statistics.

The current storm hurtling toward the East Coast has already been blamed for 10 traffic-related deaths in the West and Texas, according to The Associated Press.

Nearly 300 American Airlines and American Eagle flights were canceled in and out of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport on Monday because of the weather, spokeswoman Laura Masvidal said, mirroring disruptions at the air hub a day earlier. Some of the country's busiest airports -- New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston and Charlotte -- could see big delays.

Icy roads led to hundreds of accidents and at least 10 deaths, half of them in Texas. On Monday, the storm brought a mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain to parts of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, southern Kansas and Texas. But as the storm continues east, there are fears of heavy rain along the busy I-95 corridor and sleet, freezing rain and snow away from the coast and at higher elevations.

Tom Kines, a meteorologist with AccuWeather, said it will be "primarily a rain event" for the East Coast, with up to 3 inches of rain dousing travelers.

"The further inland you get -- especially as you get into that higher terrain -- you are going to deal with frozen precipitation," Kines said.

"We're asking folks to not take chances," Beres said. "Some people say, 'I know my engine light is on, but I can still make it to Maryland.' Don't do that."

Drivers, however, will benefit from lower gas prices compared with previous years.

S.C. gas prices, averaging $3.07 Friday, are down 21 cents from Labor Day, when they averaged $3.28. South Carolinians are paying 6 cents per gallon less at the pump than a year ago, when they paid $3.13 heading into Thanksgiving.

Hilton Head Island resorts are banking on an influx of tourists traveling by car this weekend, said Gail Wargo, director of sales and marketing at The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa.

She said the resort is almost full and doesn't expect storms to diminish bookings.

"This time of year, we rely on our drive-in market -- Atlanta, Charlotte, cities like that," she said. "Flight delays shouldn't bother us too much."

At Hudson's Seafood House on the Docks, out-of-town travelers make up a large portion of the guest list for the Hilton Head Island restaurant's annual Thanksgiving dinner.

"We get people from different socio-economic backgrounds and from all parts of the country," general manager Andrew Carmines said.

In its 15th year, the dinner will serve about 1,400, he said.

Weather shouldn't be a problem.

"It started out as something for people who didn't have anywhere to go during the holidays, and it's really morphed into something a lot bigger," he said.

Follow reporter Dan Burley at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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