Record cold in Beaufort County causes some power outages, school bus delays + video

info@islandpacket.comJanuary 7, 2014 

Beaufort County witnessed record-breaking temperatures Tuesday morning, reaching a low of 19 degrees, with 15 to 25 mph winds making it feel as if it were in the single digits, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Vern Beaver.

Utilities reported record electrical usage, causing them to instate rolling blackouts, and about 950 residents lost power on Hilton Head Island on Tuesday morning. The Beaufort County School District had a power outage at Pritchardville Elementary School, and nine of the district's buses were delayed Tuesday morning because of the cold. Local charities reported seeing a slight increase in people seeking coats, blankets and heaters.

The previous record low for Jan. 7 was 21 degrees, recorded at the Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport in 1959.

"We saw wind chills of about 3 degrees across much of the state, without much difference between inland and coastal locations," Beaver said. "But we were well away from all-time lows."

The all-time low for Savannah is 3 degrees, set in 1985. Records reflect pure air temperature and do not factor in wind chill, Beaver said.

As of noon, it was 26 degrees across much of Beaufort County with northwest winds of 7 mph for a wind chill of 17 degrees, according to the weather service.

"Tonight, we'll be near record lows at slightly above 15 degrees for the Savannah area," Beaver said.

But beginning Wednesday, temperatures will begin to rapidly warm to around 50 degrees for a high and reach near 70 by Saturday, with a chance of showers over the weekend, he said.

"Things will rapidly moderate after a cold night tonight, so get through tonight safely," Beaver said, adding the forecast does not call for snow or ice.

POWER OUTAGES

About 950 homes on Hilton Head Island lost electricity shortly before 10 a.m. Tuesday, according to Palmetto Electric Cooperative.

The power outage hit the Folly Field area after temperatures in the teens contributed to a circuit failure, said Jimmy Baker, vice president of marketing and public relations. Crews were still at the scene about 11 a.m. working to restore power, he said.

Other minor transformer failures cut power to a few homes on Hilton Head and in Jasper County, Baker said.

The outages came just as Palmetto Electric set an all-time record for energy demand. Between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., the company hit 467 megawatts of demand, Baker said. That was about 10 percent higher than its previous peak of 420 megawatts on Dec. 14, 2010.

"We were expecting a record based on the forecast," Baker said. "I don't know that we were expecting a 10 percent increase. ... But we're proud of the way the system held up during this extreme cold."

High demand also caused SCE&G to lose part of its generating capacity and to implement rolling blackouts, according to a news release. Customers in some areas may lose power for no more than 15 minutes, the release said.

The company urged residents Tuesday to turn off and unplug nonessential appliances to conserve energy.

BEAUFORT COUNTY SCHOOLS

The Beaufort County School District lost power at one school and had some bus delays Tuesday morning from the below-freezing temperatures.

Pritchardville Elementary School had a brief power outage Tuesday morning, a result of SCE&G's rolling blackouts, according to district spokesman Jim Foster.

The school's backup generators kept the lights on, but its computers and heating system were out for an hour. Power was restored before the building's temperatures dropped too low, Foster said.

Beaufort County schools also experienced a few cold-related problems with buses. Nine out of the 149 bus routes, Foster said, had troubles Tuesday morning. The cold caused hydraulic lines to freeze so that some bus doors could not be closed, he said. Students on the affected routes arrived to school about 15 minutes late, he said.

To prevent similar delays Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning, the district will start the bus engines earlier, Foster said. It also will continue to have mechanics on call in both northern and southern Beaufort County, he said.

The Jasper County School District had four buses that would not start Tuesday morning, according to spokesman Shellie Murdaugh. The district had spare buses to transport students to school on time, she said.

Jasper schools did not experience any problems with heat or pipes, she said.

Both school districts ran heating systems throughout the night, rather than cut them off at the end of the day as usual. Foster said this kept the schools warm and put less stress on the system with having to heat the buildings from a cold start.

Foster and Murdaugh said both districts will continue to run the heat overnight Tuesday and will continue classes on a regular schedule Wednesday morning. Officials encourage parents and students to make sure they are appropriately dressed for the weather.

CHARITIES READY FOR NEED

Lowcountry charities prepared Tuesday for a potential influx of residents in need of blankets, winter coats and space heaters to protect against the bitter temperatures.

At HELP of Beaufort, residents nabbed the few space heaters the service had left Tuesday morning.

"We don't really stock up," volunteer Debbie Marcil said. "Once we get one, they go pretty quick."

Betsy Doughtie, executive director at Deep Well on Hilton Head Island, said a handful of people stopped by for coats and blankets.

"It amazes me we haven't had anyone come in looking to sleep," she said. "There a few homeless men in the area who we can put up in a motel for a cold night."

Those stuck in the cold can also find sanctuary with the American Red Cross. The Beaufort County chapter is ready to open warming shelters in Beaufort, Bluffton and on St. Helena's Island if the county calls for it, a spokesman said.

The hardships won't end when things warm up Wednesday, Doughtie said.

For many, heating and electric bills will be sky high when they are due in a few months.

"We'll see a lot of requests then," she said. "When people's power is going to be shut off because they are past due from heating their houses now."


Video: Cold start (:52)

Broad River Elementary School students hop on the bus in winter gear to go to school on Jan. 7, 2014. Theophil Syslo

Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette staff writers Rebecca Lurye, Sarah Bowman, Tom Barton and Dan Burley contributed to this report.

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