As many as 7,500 electric customers across the county, perhaps more, lost power -- some for 18 hours or longer -- due to a brief, but very strong thunderstorm that swept across Kershaw County on Thursday afternoon.
Kershaw County and city of Camden officials reported hundreds of trees damaged or completely blown down, many causing the power outages as the trees or their limbs crashed onto power lines. On its Facebook page, Fairfield Electric Cooperative even posted a picture of a tree that had been completely uprooted that, in turn, caused a transformer for underground service to move off its pad. The company reported 3,200 outages across its service area.
In the city of Camden, the greatest impact came during a 15- to 20-minute period between 4 and 4:30 p.m., according to City Manager Mel Pearson.
“This storm did more damage than any of the hurricanes of the last three years,” Pearson said Friday morning.
Pearson said 75 trees in the city were either seriously damaged or completely knocked over, with half of them being on residents’ properties. He said utility and road crews were out all night Thursday, most -- including Public Works Director Tom Couch -- not going home until 8 a.m. Friday.
The crews that were out overnight had help from contractors to help clear trees so city crews could restore power.
“We had outages all the way south to Rembert and north up to Westville,” Pearson said, noting that the city serves many electric customers far outside the city limits. “At 8 a.m. (Friday), we brought in fresh crews so they could continue trying to restore service. We had significant outages in the east Camden area, including one tree that took out three spans of power lines around Malvern Hill.”
Pearson said the most damage appeared to be in residential areas and in parts of the Dusty Bend commercial district on the north side of town. On the other hand, he said, there appeared to be very little, if any, real damage at River Oaks Shopping Center, Springdale Plaza and Walmart on the west side of town, or along U.S. 521 near I-20 exit 98 to the south.
On Friday, Sumter Utilities was helping the city with some “loose ends” and “smaller, remaining outages,” especially in rural areas services by the city, Pearson said, adding that by Friday morning he believed somewhere between 200 to 300 customers were still without power.
He said there was one fire caused by the storm: a grass fire started by a downed line.
“The fire department responded to 50 calls overall. Most were for downed power lines that we were already in the process of responding to,” Pearson said.
He said seven city employees manned the phones at Camden City Hall to take those calls.
“Five circuits all went down at once,” Pearson said, explaining why so many customers’ power went out. “The winds were much stronger than we expected.”
How strong were they? According to National Weather Service (NWS) forecaster Rich Okulski in Columbia, not -- officially -- as strong as elsewhere in the state.
“The top gust reported in Kershaw County was 43 mph,” Okulski said Friday afternoon, adding there was no tornado-type activity and that all damage should have been caused by what are known as straight-line winds. “Across the state, we had wind gusts of between 60 and 70 mph. There was one gust recorded at 78 mph in Santee. It’s been about two years since we’ve seen these high wind gusts so widespread across the state.”
Okulski said more storms were predicted for Saturday, with an early band more to the southern part of South Carolina, but a later one possibly crossing through the Midlands, including Kershaw County. At that point, he and his fellow forecasters thought the later storm would pass through late Saturday evening or even sometime Sunday morning, and didn’t think they would produce as widespread a problem as Thursday’s storm.
Widespread was also the word Kershaw County Director of Safety and Emergency Services Gene Faulkenberry used to describe what county crews had to respond to in terms of scope. Faulkenberry said crews responded to calls across the county from Elgin to the Antioch and Cassatt areas.
“We had extra dispatchers come in to handle the call volume,” Faulkenberry said. “From 3 p.m. to midnight (Thursday), we had a total of 565 calls. Ninety-five of those were for blocked roads, 27 for other storm-related issues, and the remaining 388 for power outages and trees being down.”
He said one of the biggest problems Thursday was on S.C. 34 in the Pine Grove area.
“A huge tree went down, blocking the entire road, and it was too big for us to cut with chainsaws so we needed a backhoe to remove it,” Faulkenberry said.
He said there were also a lot of fires caused by limbs or entire trees falling on power lines.
“There were also a few wrecks caused by the storm,” he said.
Faulkenberry said that at one point Thursday, he had learned that Fairfield Electric had around 500 customers in Kershaw County without power, some 140 from Lynches River Electric, and around 2,200 each from Black River Electric and Duke Energy for a total of around 5,000 customers.
Pearson said at the height of the power outages, at least 2,500 of its approximately 9,350 customers were without electricity.