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Jacob Simpson, a valet attendant at the Andrew Pinckney Inn, covers the hotel's front door in a tarp in preparation for Hurricane Florence. South Carolina's largest utilities say that if their customers lose power, it could take days to start restoring electricity. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

If Hurricane Florence knocks out your power, it could take days for utilities to even begin the work of getting the lights back on.

That’s because tropical storm-force winds are expected to linger over South Carolina for days. And until they subside, the state’s largest utilities say crews won’t be able to get to work.

Linemen can’t get into bucket trucks in tropical storm conditions, and they can’t fly helicopters to inspect lines in stiff winds. Long-running winds would make for a slower-than-usual response, especially if the storm rides near the coast and moves slowly.

"That could increase outages and delay the start of power restoration work," said the state-owned utility Santee Cooper, which sells electricity in Georgetown and Myrtle Beach.

The state's utilities say they’re not sure how many electricity users might lose power, but power companies like Santee Cooper and South Carolina Electric and Gas said they were gearing up for "significant" outages. By Thursday afternoon, only a handful of outages had been reported in South Carolina, but across the border in North Carolina, thousands of outage reports were stacking up.

The impact to SCE&G's system is less certain: It provides electricity to an area that runs from Charleston to Columbia, where the storm's exact impacts are still murky. But it cautioned that Florence is unlike most hurricanes it has encountered because its inland track has been slow and unpredictable.

SCE&G President Keller Kissam said Florence might actually be more similar to an ice storm that chilled South Carolina in 2004, when freezing weather lingered for days and made it hard for line crews to work.

"It is such a slow mover," Kissam said. "It's going to impact our service territory, and it's going to be here for a day and a half to two days."

The uncertainty — and the possibility for widespread damage — was highlighted by outage estimates produced by Duke Energy, which sells electricity to 4 million homes and businesses in the Carolinas.

Duke said it’s expecting anywhere from 1 million to 3 million of its ratepayers to lose power. The company didn’t respond to questions about how many it expects in South Carolina alone, where it serves the Pee Dee and the Upstate.

Even as the storm approached, Florence began to affect the state's electric grid: Duke said it was powering down two nuclear reactors near the coast of North Carolina ahead of the storm's worst effects. Those reactors, at the Brunswick Nuclear Plant, help power Duke's operations in the Pee Dee, formerly known as Progress Energy. They account for more than a tenth of Progress's energy capacity.

The co-ops were likewise bracing for prolonged outages, according to Todd Carter, vice president of loss control and training for the utilities’ state association. The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, a trade group, warned that the storm's sluggish pace could lead to extended outages for the first people to lose power.

" 'Quick power restoration' can have different meanings with different people," Carter said in a statement. "We know consumers want their power restored in a matter of hours, but with damage that a hurricane can cause, sometimes 'quickly' means a day or two or more."

As it edges toward the coast, Florence’s winds are blowing across hundreds of miles, and the storm is forecast to move slowly once it moves ashore. Most of South Carolina has at least a 50 percent chance of seeing tropical storm-force winds, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Florence is expected to make landfall on the coast of North Carolina on Friday, but its remnants are likely to stay for days. It’s not forecast to lose tropical storm status until Sunday, and its center won’t push out of South Carolina until Monday.

Jamie Lovegrove contributed to this report.

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703. Follow him on Twitter @thadmoore.