The constant sound of chain saws could be heard humming across the Augusta area Thursday as utility workers and sheriff’s deputies worked to clear the wreckage left by what meteorologists are calling an ice storm for the ages. They planned to work into the weekend.
The National Weather Service in Columbia reported that the winter storm dumped more than an inch of ice on Aiken County and three-quarters inches across the rest of the Augusta area.
Much of the storm passed about 9 p.m. Wednesday, but after it left, ice-coated tree branches and power lines came crashing down, leaving many roads and bridges impassable and hundreds of thousands of people in the dark across the state, the majority in Richmond and Columbia counties.
Georgia Power brought in more than 8,000 workers from as far north as Tennessee and as far south as Florida in hopes of having the vast majority of power outages restored by Saturday, a company spokesman said.
To help clear the way for power crews, the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office e-mailed an all-hands bulletin to its deputies between 10 and 11 p.m. Wednesday. Lt. Calvin Chew, spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said that even before the alert was sent, off-duty road patrol officers arrived to help.
“They came in on their own accord,” he said. “It’s their town, too, and they want to make sure it is safe and secure.”
Chew said more than 100 deputies were divided into 27 groups of four, and each was given one to two chain saws to clear impassable bridges and major roads, which dominated the office’s 911 calls Thursday.
A small contingent of officers was reserved to respond to traffic wrecks, criminal calls and security alarms triggered by the inclement weather, which Chew said was minimal.
“It’s all over,” said Chew of the ice, which he said police hoped to have cleared by the end of the day.
Georgia Power spokesman Tony Gonzalez said Wednesday’s storm caused more than 540,000 customers to lose electricity from the accumulations of ice that felled trees and power lines. Most of those customers were in counties over a wide swath of middle Georgia along the Interstate 20 corridor.
There were about 97,000 customers in the region without power Thursday night, according to Brian Green, another Georgia Power spokesman.
Green said there were as many as 186,000 people without power across the Augusta area during the storm’s peak.
About 6 p.m. Thursday, Jefferson Energy Cooperative reported that 20,084 customers in its service area were without electricity. There had been about 27,000 without service 12 hours earlier on Thursday morning, according to company spokesman Steve Chalker.
In Columbia County, about 31,000 Columbia County residents remained without electricity Thursday night, according to Columbia County Emergency Operations Director Pam Tucker.
Gonzalez said the magnitude of the damage meant that some Georgia Power customers could expect to be without electricity through Saturday.
He said warming temperature would help melt the ice, but wind could bring down more weakened limbs and cause more problems in coming days.
Richmond County Disaster Preparedness Coordinator Mie Lucas said no significant injuries were reported.
Tucker said two people, an adult and a child, were injured by fallen trees. The adult needed stitches, and the child’s condition was not immediately known.
“Considering the massiveness of this storm, we fared very well,” Tucker said.
Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross said the sheer number of fallen trees and damaged power lines makes it difficult to get a handle on the cleanup required. He said that local Georgia National Guard units are prepared to pitch in if needed, but thus far he hasn’t called on their help.
“The big thing we are facing is getting the power back on,” he said Thursday morning. “We’re on emergency power at the (Emergency Operations Center), but I think we’ve found an alternate source of fuel to keep the generators running.”
Cross said a Georgia Power representative told him the company had more than 1,500 workers in the area attending to storm-related problems.
Dan Miller, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Columbia, said that according to Augusta ice storm records kept since 2000, only the inch of sleet that dropped on the area in December 2004 compares to the current storm.
“This was an ice storm of historic proportions,” he said. “It was really an unusual event.”
The Chavous family of North Augusta remembers the 2004 storm and said this year’s storm was much worse because of the size of the trees that fell.
“We’ve got a yard that looks like a war zone,” said Wayne Chavous, who counts himself lucky that his power was out only a few hours.
Insurance companies reported that their offices are already receiving claims of fallen limbs, frozen pipes and ice-related car accidents, but said it is still too early to speculate on the total impact.
“We encourage everybody to listen to the local authorities and weather advisories and to above all, be safe,” said Elizabeth Stelzer, a spokeswoman for Nationwide Insurance, which had 34 Georgia homeowners and 66 South Carolina homeowners already file claims.
Daniel Groce, a spokesman for Allstate Insurance, said most homeowners’ policies cover direct physical loss to insured property resulting from a freeze. Terms and conditions will apply, and homeowners might want to take time to review their policy or contact their agent to discuss coverage.
The only residential area not greatly affected by the winter storm was Fort Gordon.
“There is storm debris – primarily tree branches – being cleared from the roads and other areas in housing; however, no major issues,” said Maureen Omrod, a spokeswoman for Balfour Betty, the post’s family housing provider. “Thanks to underground utilities, we have no power outages to report.”
The rest of the area was not as lucky.
The American Red Cross reported that more than 200 people sought refuge in emergency shelters in Richmond, Columbia, McDuffie, Jefferson and Jenkins counties.
Staff writers Tom Corwin and Jenna Martin contributed to this article.