December 20. 2013 12:04AM

Ice storm threatens the region

Union Leader Correspondent

Five years after a crippling ice storm caused the worst power outage in state history, forecasters are warning of another potential ice storm threat for parts of New Hampshire this weekend.

Areas where icing will occur are still being ironed out, but central and northern parts of New Hampshire are under the gun and it’s possible that ice could be a problem in southern locations as well, according to Tom Hawley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray, Maine.The storm would be an unwelcome visitor, arriving on the last weekend before Christmas and threatening those final days of the holiday shopping season.

The severity of the storm depends on where a cold front sets up across New England.Hawley said the front will slide south with cold air at low levels. Warm air will ride over the cold air at the surface, leading to a prolonged period of freezing rain that’s expected to begin Saturday night and last into Sunday, he said.Areas to the north of the front will see freezing rain, while those on the southern side will be warm enough for plain rain.

Hawley said the northern half of the state is the most likely area to see freezing rain, but the southern zone could be affected as well if the front moves far enough south.More than an inch of rain is expected with the storm, Hawley said, with the heaviest possibly falling in central areas.

“People should be aware that there could be significant icing, even in southern areas. We know there’s going to be icing, but narrowing down the point where it’s going to be the most severe is difficult,” Hawley said.The counties that could see the greatest impacts are in eastern sections, including Belknap, Carroll and northern Strafford, said National Weather Service meteorologist Michael Kistner.

Ice buildup could reach a half inch, Kistner said.High temperatures on Saturday are expected to range from the lower 30s in the north to upper 30s in the south, dropping into the 20s throughout the state during the overnight hours, Hawley said.

On Sunday, temperatures will likely be in the upper 20s in northern areas and possibly mid-40s in the extreme southern part of the state. But again, Hawley said, the temperatures will depend on the location of the front.Could the storm be as bad as the one on Dec. 11 and Dec. 12, 2008? “It’s certainly possible, we just don’t know,” Hawley said.That storm left more than 400,000 homes and businesses in the dark for several days; some didn’t see power restored for two weeks or a little longer.The ’08 storm went down in the record books for causing the largest power outage, followed by another storm in 1998 that devastated northern New England.Forecasters encouraged residents to pay close attention to the forecast over the next couple of days.“There is potential there and if you prepare early for it then when push comes to shove and it’s time you’re not going to be the last one scrambling,” Kistner said.

Power companies have already begun preparations in the event the storm causes outages.Public Service of New Hampshire spokesman Martin Murray said the utility is keeping a close eye on the forecast.

On Thursday, Murray said PSNH had 98 line crews and more than 100 tree crews deployed in its service area. The company was working to secure additional line crews and tree crews to be in place over the weekend, in anticipation of the storm.“The forecast indicates there will likely be some periods of freezing rain and icing. Whether or not that results in power outages depends on the duration and how much ice actually accumulates. In any case, we are well prepared to respond if outages do occur. We’ll be topping off equipment inventories and alerting our staff about the possibility of restoration work,” Murray said.Unitil is also preparing for the storm by reaching out to third party contractors and tree crews to assist with any restoration effort.

“We’re definitely in preparation mode. The potential certainly exists and we’re going to continue hoping for the best but planning for the worst,” said Alec O’Meara, Unitil spokesman.O’Meara acknowledged that the storm couldn’t be coming at a worse time with Christmas arriving next week. However, he said the priority will be restoring power as quickly as possible if outages occur.

“We’re very mindful of the fact that Christmas is Wednesday. We definitely want a restoration plan in place and we understand that folks have plans for the holiday season. Our folks have plans, too,” he