The winter storm that swept through the south Tuesday and Wednesday, walloped the Augusta area with a thick layer of sleet and ice, leaving devastation in its wake.
Crumpled trees and collapsed power lines left about 85 percent of Columbia County residents without power on Thursday, while swarms of Georgia Power and other utility crews struggling to restore service.
Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross said the sheer number of fallen trees and damaged power lines made it difficult to get a handle on the situation.
“The big thing we are facing is getting the power back on,” he said. “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 he spoke to a Georgia Power representative this morning and the company had more than 1,500 workers in the area attending to power problems.
The storm closed government offices and many area businesses Thursday and Friday. County schools were also closed mid-week and school officials said students would not be expected to return until Wednesday.
Georgia Power officials confirmed that the Augusta area was the hardest hit across the state. At one point on Thursday morning, almost 110,000 Georgia Power customers were without power in Columbia and Richmond counties, accounting for 45 percent of the outages statewide.
Cross and Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver accompanied Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal on an aerial survey of the damage by helicopter Thursday afternoon.
“The contact that the governor made early (Tuesday) morning was very meaningful, to pledge the facilities of the National Guard. Col. (Bobby) Christine here in our local area has been coordinating all that,” he said.
Cross said hoped to persuade Deal to release some federal emergency funding to assist with the cleanup effort.
“He has been very attentive to our needs,” Cross said.
Columbia County Emergency and Operations Director Pam Tucker said she made a good case for federal aid and Deal was supportive. Federal aid would pay for a contractor for debris removal as well as the county’s disaster costs such as fuel.
Columbia County Engineering Services Division Director Matt Schlachter said trees and power lines were still blocking many roads Thursday evening. Crews were constantly working to clear them.
“We know about most of them, we just can’t get to them fast enough,” Schlachter said.
Without no power over most of the county, residents flocked to the few open stores including the Circle K store on Baston Road at Old Petersburg Road.
People waited in lines to reach gas pumps and were standing in lines to the back of the store, most with warm beverages.
“Everybody is buying coffee,” said Darrick Hardison, manager of the Furys Ferry Road store that is closed because it has no electricity. “It’s going to be crazy like this all day today.”
Cheri Snover stopped at the store for a hot cup of coffee on her way to work in downtown Augusta. She was hoping the building has electricity so she could submit payroll for about 500 employees.
“We were prepared,” Snover said, adding she and her husband had water and other supplies. But like most other Columbia County residents, the Snovers had no power and kept warm under blankets and layered clothing.
Over at the county’s warming center at Patriot’s Park, people sought relief from the cold that seeped steadily into their darkened homes.
Evelyn Clopper said she was used to winter weather. She’s from Massachusetts.
But she, her daughter-in-law Tiffany Clopper, and her two grandchildren – Kacy Mobley, 5, and Corbin Clopper, 3 months – went to the shelter Thursday afternoon in an effort to keep the family warm.
Clopper’s son and daughter-in-law’s home doesn’t have a fireplace.
“We stuck it out last night hoping (the electricity) would come back on,” Clopper said. “But (we came) because of the kids.”
American Red Cross volunteer and shelter Manager Almon Poss said they had more than 70 people come in by mid-afternoon Thursday and expect to house at 100 people for the night.
People who come to the shelter run the gamut from the elderly and special needs patients to families with young children.
“It’s people that don’t have any electricity and no heat,” Almon said.
The lack of electricity was a burden for most, but others saw it as a business opportunity.
Meg Shanklin came to town with about 200 generators and set up shop in the parking lot of Publix on Washington Road at Evans Town Centre Drive.
She owns Generator City, a mobile business that sells generators in crisis-stricken areas.
“This is just the beginning,” Shanklin said after only two hours of sales Thursday morning.
Shanklin said she’s run the business, based on Ohio, for about 10 years and saw others being arrested for price gouging for selling generators and other needed supplies for way too much.
She arrived with an RV and a truckload of 4,500-watt and 8,000-watt generators.
A tractor trailer was on the way with about 400 more. Shanklin said she expects to be in town selling generators for several days after the ice storm crisis is over.
“Most people don’t buy a generator until they really need one,” Shanklin said.