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Houston — Power utilities across the Carolinas, Maryland and Virginia on Tuesday braced for the impact of Hurricane Florence, described as "a large and extremely dangerous storm system," which is likely to cause widespread power outages that could take "several weeks" and millions of dollars to restore.

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As of 1 pm EDT Tuesday, Hurricane Florence was considered a Category 4 major hurricane, about 850 miles southeast of Cape Fear, North Carolina, bearing northwest at about 17 mph with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph, the National Hurricane Center reported. It was expected to approach the coast of North or South Carolina Thursday and Friday.

"While some weakening is expected on Thursday, Florence is expected to be an extremely dangerous major hurricane through landfall," the report said.

Duke Energy spokeswoman Meredith Archie said her "company expects widespread damage and power outages."

"Historical data and company experience indicate that total power restoration from a storm of this magnitude could take multiple days to several weeks -- depending on the extent of damage and post-storm conditions, such as ongoing high winds and severe flooding, after the storm passes though the region," Archie said in an email Tuesday.

Duke Energy is moving power restoration crews from its Florida, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio utilities to staged locations in the Carolinas to help the Carolina crews, who number about 4,600 people, to restore power "as soon as it is safe to do so."

Scana's South Carolina Electric & Gas subsidiary has about 2,800 contract crews and employees on standby for restoration efforts, spokeswoman Rhonda O'Banion said Tuesday.

LESSONS FROM MATTHEW

In 2016, Hurricane Matthew caused about $125 million in damage across Duke's footprint in North Carolina that left about 1.5 million customers without power, of which 96% had been restored over the next five days, Archie said. Duke had "to completely rebuild parts of the state's energy system," Archie said.

In Duke's North Carolina footprint, the North Carolina Utilities Commission provides "no special treatment for storm damages," said James McLawhorn, director of the North Carolina Public Staff's Electric Division, which acts as a governmental consumer advocate separate from the NCUC.

"There's a component of cost of service in a general rate case that covers a normal level of storm damage," McLawhorn said, and such issues may be contested.

In the case of extraordinarily large damage, "what typically happens is that utilities will come to the commission to ask to set up a deferral of costs" so that what would normally be an annual expense can be amortized over a longer period.

"That was the case two years ago when Hurricane Matthew hit the state," McLawhorn said.

SCE&G was also hit by Matthew, O'Banion said, causing more than 290,000 outages, which had been restored in about a week, at a cost of about $32 million.

The Public Service Commission of South Carolina typically provides no special treatment for storm damage cost repairs, said Jocelyn Boyd, the PSC's chief administrator, so to collect those costs from ratepayers, regulated utilities must file a request with the PSC, notify ratepayers and participate in a PSC hearing,.

The commission allowed Duke and SCE&G to establish storm reserve funds in 2010 and 1996, respectively, but collection of SCE&G's funds was suspended in 2012, Boyd said, and she was unsure of the status of Duke's reserve funds.

NUCLEAR SHUTDOWNS LIKELY

Duke Energy's nuclear plants in the Carolinas would be required to shut in advance of the arrival of winds of more than 73 miles per hour, said Karen Williams, a spokeswoman for the coastal 1,978-MW Brunswick plant near Wilmington, North Carolina, said. The units would have to be shut at least two hours before the arrival of hurricane-force winds, she said.

The same requirements apply to most US nuclear units. Nuclear reactors are protected against extreme winds, including tornado-strength gusts, but shut as a protective measure in case off-site power is lost.

The Carolinas have 12 of the country's 99 nuclear units. In addition, four units are in Virginia and five in coastal Delaware and Maryland.

SCE&G is also prepared to shut its 1,006-MW Summer station in Jenkinsville, South Carolina, O'Banion said. The utility is evaluating whether it will need to increase staffing levels before the storm, she said.

"Regardless of this storm's exact path, we anticipate Florence will bring dangerous winds and the potential for heavy rain and flooding across our service territory, which could result in significant power outages for our customers," said Bill Turner, SCE&G vice president of operations, in a news release Monday. "We have worked for years to strengthen our system against the impacts of severe weather, and our response for this particular event has already begun."

Virginia's Dominion Energy and Maryland's Baltimore Gas & Electric also issued news release about their storm preparatory efforts.

If Dominion's costs are significant, the Virginia State Corporation Commission provides two methods to recover them: a base rate increase or a charge against earnings during a financial review, said Ken Schrad, SCC director of information resources, in an email Tuesday.

-- William Freebairn and Mark Watson, newsdesk@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Jeffrey Ryser, newsdesk@spglobal.com