A winter storm passed over the Lowcountry on Wednesday without dumping the predicted 2 to 3 inches of snow on Beaufort County, but wet weather and freezing temperatures mean the effects of the chilly blast could last well into Thursday.
Overnight lows were expected to drop into the mid-20s, National Weather Service Charleston meteorologist Julie Packett said, so roads could be frozen Thursday morning, presenting more of the dangerous traffic conditions that caused occasional problems Wednesday.
"It's going to be a mess," Beaufort County deputy administrator Bryan Hill predicted.
City of Beaufort Public Works director Isiah Smalls shared his concerns.
"Yes, it's melting," he said Tuesday, "but tonight when the temperature drops, you're going to have a solid sheet of ice."
Michael Johnson, who worked the Woods Memorial Bridge overnight operator shift into Wednesday morning, warned drivers to be careful on the bridge as they drove across.
"It's very treacherous," Johnson said. "People don't realize the ice is on here. They come up the hill, and they start coming down, and sometimes it's a little too late."
That was the case on Wednesday on the bridges to and from Hilton Head Island.
Those spans were temporarily shut down about 20 minutes before noon because of ice buildup and two minor accidents, according to Beaufort County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Robin McIntosh. The bridges were closed to traffic while DOT trucks salted them, but one lane in each direction was reopened shortly after noon. All lanes were reopened by 3 p.m., after DOT trucks sanded the bridges once more.
"The SCDOT has heavily sanded the bridges, and they are dry right now," Hilton Head Island town manager Steve Riley said Tuesday. "We should be good tomorrow morning, but if there is precipitation, people will have to be cautious and exercise their own judgment."
S.C. Department of Transportation crews will continue salting and sanding roads around the state until the ice threat is over, according to a news release Wednesday afternoon.
FORECAST: RETURN TO NORMAL
Packett said there was a small chance of freezing rain Thursday morning from weather bands south of the county.
Although Thursday morning's conditions could be treacherous, life in the Lowcountry should return to normal by midday. Municipal and county offices all planned to reopen by noon. Hilton Head offices and parks pushed their openings to normal business hours at 8 a.m., Riley said.
Beaufort County public schools will open two hours later than usual, school district officials announced Wednesday. Changes to those plans could be made Thursday morning; information about changes will be posted before 7 a.m. to the district's website, www.beaufort.k12.sc.us, and also will be reported at islandpacket.com and beaufortgazette.com as it is made available.
Beaufort County's military installations, closed since Tuesday afternoon, will reopen at noon. The Technical College of the Lowcountry will reopen at 10 a.m.
Palmetto Breeze bus service, which shut down Tuesday afternoon, will remain closed Thursday, the agency announced.
Packett said the weather will warm into the mid-40s Thursday.
A (LACK OF) SNOW DAY
The rain, freezing rain, sleet and a tad of snow that fell Wednesday across Beaufort County primarily affected bridges around the county, as Beaufort County was spared from any significant accumulation.
Police officers and deputies escorted motorists across bridges covered by an icy, slushy mixture.
Aside from the Hilton Head bridges' closing, Wednesday was relatively quiet around the county, with sporadic reports of power outages and car accidents, which tailed off by the afternoon.
A lack of snowfall didn't deter the Ashmore girls -- Ellie, 11; Catelyn, 10; and Tori, 9 -- and their neighbor Anthony Parsick, 10, from seeking out the best sledding hill in Port Royal. Catelyn Ashmore said the group tried a few spots before deciding the little slope by the Paris Avenue side of the Cypress Wetlands was best for sliding down ice-encrusted grass. It was her first time sledding, as she's only seen snow once or twice.
"I think it's pretty cool," she said. "And I like not having school."
Schools in both Beaufort and Jasper counties were closed Wednesday. Jasper County students are a bit luckier than their Beaufort counterparts, as school will remain closed for students Thursday; school staff will work a delayed opening.
The National Weather Service lifted the winter-storm warning for the area at noon Wednesday, after virtually all of the rain and snow subsided. Packett said no significant accumulations of sleet or snow were measured, and only about a quarter-inch of ice formed in the most extreme locations.
Ice was still a problem in some instances, though, causing a tricky commute over Beaufort County bridges, leading to heavy patrols by county law enforcement agencies. Beaufort Police Department patrol cars guided motorists over a slushy Woods Memorial Bridge, and Port Royal Police Department cars did the same on the Russell Bell Bridge that spans Battery Creek.
Bridges around the county were prepared by the DOT with salt or sand to prevent ice buildup, which was originally predicted to be as thick as three-quarters of an inch in some areas. Statewide, the S.C. Highway Patrol reported the number of weather-related service calls and reported accidents over Tuesday and Wednesday had gone up nearly 10 times from the same two-day span a year ago.
Power outages were confined to small losses of electricity in the northern half of the county and two larger ones on Hilton Head Island.
The majority of Palmetto Electric Cooperative customers affected Wednesday were on Hilton Head, marketing and public relations vice president Jimmy Baker said. Baker said 948 customers in the Dillon Road area lost power after a tree limb fell on a power line at 6:37 a.m., and 529 customers in the Indigo Run neighborhood lost power twice at about 8:40 a.m. because of falling tree limbs.
SCE&G only had small outages Wednesday in Beaufort County, public affairs manager Eric Boomhower said.
The winter weather affected trash pickup in the county Wednesday, with residential garbage and recycling pickups delayed until Thursday in Beaufort, Bluffton and the town of Port Royal.
Predictions Tuesday of overnight ice and snow led to the cancellation of activities across Beaufort County, but it proved to be a day of enjoyment for some.
At The Sands beach in Port Royal, Franklin Savage, 6, Brayden Savage, 5, and Savannah Watson, 10, helped comb the sand for tiny sharks' teeth. With his teeth chattering, Franklin Savage said he didn't like the beach as much as during the summer, but then he held out his hand to show off the teeth he'd discovered.
Savannah Watson, who had on rubber boots halfway up her calves, was less fazed by the cold, stomping puddles and breaking up ice.
"I like the cold because I live in Beaufort, and we don't get to see this a lot," she said.
Cold weather wouldn't stop Hilton Head Island resident Lucille Johnson, an Ohio native and the lone soul on Coligny Beach around 10 a.m., from finishing her walk.
"I take my walk every morning, rain or shine," she said. "I started a little later today, though."
Follow reporter Matt McNab on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_ Matt.