The Lowcountry could be in for a rare sight Tuesday and Wednesday: A cold front could bring the area's first snowfall since February 2010, and the possibility it will be accompanied by ice is raising concerns, according to a National Weather Service Charleston meteorologist.
A quarter- to a half-inch of ice could accumulate on roads and power lines as the cold-weather system passes through the area, thanks to freezing rain that could start Tuesday and continue into Wednesday, Wendy Sellers said.
Sellers said heavy ice last covered Beaufort County in January 2011.
After a warm day Monday, temperatures were expected to fall and conditions were expected to rapidly deteriorate by sunrise Tuesday. Rain could start by midnight and continue uninterrupted for 24 hours, Sellers said.
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The county could also get a half-inch of snow during the two-day period as temperatures begin to drop. Sellers said projected high temperatures will drop into the low 30s Tuesday, with the wind chill making the air feel like it's in the 20s.
Classes will be conducted as usual Tuesday, but the Beaufort County School District already has canceled after-school activities. Emergency responders await truckloads of salt and sand that will be used to keep roadways safe, and electric companies are on alert to restore power if it is lost.
WINTER STORM PREPARATIONS
Temperatures reached the high 60s on Monday, as preparations for the chilly blast began.
The S.C. Department of Transportation and Beaufort County announced plans to mobilize equipment and workers to keep bridges and roads passable. Almost 2,000 maintenance employees will work 12-hour shifts to spread nearly 57,000 tons of salt and 18,000 tons of sand to keep state roads from icing, according to a DOT news release. Interstate, U.S. and state highways are the department's top priorities.
In the department's District 6, which includes Beaufort and Jasper counties, crews were being readied and extra salt was being shipped in, the release said.
Beaufort County will have 15 public works employees on standby to help assist DOT crews if needed, deputy county administrator Bryan Hill said.
"That Broad River bridge is gonna be a bear if it ices," Hill said.
Seven extra trucks will be on standby, according to county administrator Gary Kubic. He added that public-works employees would have to spread salt and sand with shovels because the county's trucks aren't equipped to do the work automatically.
Beaufort County Emergency Management Commander Lt. Col. Neil Baxley said the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office would have "reinforced patrols" out to quickly respond to calls and, if need be, block access to bridges that might freeze over.
"We are a county of islands, and if the bridges ice over, you don't move," he said. "I don't care what kind of vehicle you have, if there's a solid sheet of ice on those bridges, you're not going to move."
Baxley said one of the last times Beaufort County had severe winter weather was in 1989, when a winter storm dropped several inches of snow on the county just before Christmas.
The American Red Cross will also open shelters from the cold at 4 p.m. in two county churches -- Lowcountry Presbyterian Church on Simmonsville Road in Bluffton, and Sea Island Presbyterian Church on Lady's Island Drive in Lady's Island. They will remain open as needed, said Red Cross emergency services specialist Carl Statham.
Palmetto Electric Cooperative said in a release Monday that its crews are ready to repair outages or downed lines. The company also planned to have extra staff members at its call and power-control centers. The company is asking other electric cooperatives about sending backup crews.
Palmetto Electric serves customers in Hampton, Jasper and southern Beaufort counties.
Palmetto president and CEO G. Thomas Upshaw said in the release that the company would "do everything in our control to restore power as promptly as possible."
Attempts to reach an SCE&G spokesperson for comment Monday were unsuccessful.
Communications provider CenturyLink said in a release it would also begin preparing for the storm by checking backup generators and servicing vehicles and restoration equipment.
SCHOOL CHANGES, CANCELLATIONS
School will still be in session Tuesday in the Beaufort County and Jasper County school districts, but after-school activities have been canceled, according to officials.
Beaufort County schools spokesman Jim Foster said the district's plans could change Tuesday if the weather deteriorates earlier than expected.
"It looks like we will be fine Tuesday, but the issue will be if temperatures fall more rapidly than the forecast currently indicates," he said. "Then we might have to dismiss early."
District transportation officials will continuously evaluate road and bridge conditions across the county, and a decision about whether to delay or postpone classes on Wednesday will be made by 4 p.m. Tuesday. Parents will be notified of changes or closures by telephone and on the district's website, Foster said.
If school is postponed, he said the district could make up the missed days with Saturday sessions May 10 and May 17, but those dates could change.
Jasper County School District spokeswoman Shellie Murdaugh said the district would decide whether to hold school Wednesday after monitoring the weather and forecast.
Kubic said all county parks and leisure services activities scheduled for Tuesday have been canceled.
Some events have already been canceled in anticipation of the incoming weather. The Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce's postponed its 2014 Business Expo from Wednesday to Feb. 13, while Hilton Head Island's Economic Development Corporation scheduled meeting Tuesday was canceled.
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.