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Tomblin declares state of emergency; death reported in Tucker County

By Staff, wire reports

Sandy slams into New Jersey coast

Windy, wet predicted for Kanawha CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency in West Virginia on Monday ahead of a storm packing high winds and heavy rain and threatening to bring flooding and dump as much as 3 feet of snow on the state's highest ridge tops.

Tomblin said one person was killed in a collision between a concrete truck and another vehicle in Tucker County, where the storm produced wind and rain.

Amy Shuler Goodwin, Tomblin's spokeswoman, said authorities believe about 5 inches of snow had fallen in the area where the crash occurred, making roads treacherous.

The victim was a 40-year-old woman who was driving a car that collided with the cement truck. A 17-year-old passenger suffered minor injuries. Goodwin did not have names for either person.

About 43,000 state residents were without power Monday night. Forecasters expanded a blizzard warning Monday to at least 14 counties. High-wind warnings and flood watches also were posted, mostly in northern and eastern sections of the state. Eastern parts of the state can expect to get up to 6 inches of rain.

Forecasters upgraded an earlier prediction that had said up to 2 feet of snow was possible on ridge tops, where there are mainly ski resorts or sparsely populated areas.

Jimmy Gianato, director of the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said conditions will likely be at their worst overnight and early Tuesday before the storm moves on.

Tomblin advised residents to be ready for power outages and to stay off roads once high winds hit.

"We're not taking it lightly,'' said Marlinton Volunteer Fire Department Capt. Gene Tracy. "We're preparing for the worst -- power outages -- and getting ready to cut trees if they block the roads.''

Tomblin opened the state's emergency operations center at the state Capitol Monday.

"We're looking at a three-punch storm,'' Tomblin said. "People looking out their windows may just see some clouds and a little drizzle. I'm asking them to make sure they have enough water, batteries, food, whatever they think they need for the next two days.''

He believes state emergency operations are "very well prepared" to respond to Hurricane Sandy.

The state Division of Highways has deployed salt trucks to the state's higher elevations.

"We've been treating roads in some of the higher elevations since Sunday night," said state Department of Transportation spokesman Brent Walker. "Basically, we're seeing snow east of Interstate 79 at places above 2,500 feet, and a lot of rain everywhere else, so in addition to plowing, our crews are busy keeping drains open, keeping debris off the roads, and keeping an eye out for slides."

Tomblin activated 150 National Guard troops Monday.

"We've got special units of our National Guard strategically deployed around the state," he said.

Units are currently deployed in Martinsburg, Glen Jean, Charleston, Wheeling and Fairmont to deal with the storm's aftermath. Highways crews and National Guard units will be working in conjunction with power companies to remove debris and clear downed trees in areas with power outages.

By 10 p.m., Appalachian Power reported 12,390 West Virginia customers without power, according to the company's website. Nearly 3,150 customers were without power in Fayette County. First Energy, the parent company of Mon Power, had 30,570 customers in the state without power. Most of the affected customers were in Morgan, Berkeley, Mineral, Randolph, Webster and Nicholas counties.

Locations in the Northern and Eastern panhandles were already experiencing flooding Monday afternoon, and Tomblin said that could eventually lead to flooding concerns on the Ohio River.

"We're concerned about how much rain we get to the north, and how that will affect the Ohio River," he said.

"We don't want anyone to panic, but at the same time, you should be prepared for the storm coming through the state," he said.

He said he has been in touch with federal Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and has been assured the Federal Emergency Management Agency will provide water, food, medical supplies and generators.

"She promised us all the support we need to get through this event," Tomblin said.

State of emergency went into effect at noon statewide, and Tomblin said the emergency operations center will remain open "as long as necessary."

He said the biggest single concern is for power outages, even though there was a lot of tree removal following the July derecho.

"Obviously, it's not all been done, and we have the opportunity for a lot of downed power lines," he said.

Raleigh County Emergency Manager Mark Wilson said it had been snowing in Beckley since about 5:30 a.m. Monday. Wilson said the ground was warm enough that it was melting off early Monday, but as the day moved on it was beginning to accumulate. 

Still, at about 2,400 feet above sea level, weather forecasters were telling Beckley-area residents to expect 17 to 24 inches of snow. "We ain't got a choice," Wilson said when asked if Raleigh County authorities were ready to deal with that much snowfall.

Wilson said three emergency shelters have been placed on standby, and the county has the capacity to open another 26 if conditions warrant.

Highway crews embarked on what could be a long week of snow removal, working along U.S. 219 in Pocahontas and Randolph counties and Interstate 64 east of Beckley on Monday.

National Weather Service meteorologist Tim Axford said the overwhelming majority of residents live in lower elevations where significantly lesser amounts of snow are expected. He said the amount of land above 3,000 feet -- where the highest amount of snow was expected to fall -- is minuscule.

"People that live in Elkins may see 3 to 6 inches'' of snow, Axford said, "but people who live just outside could see quite a bit more. It's highly elevation-dependent.''

Officials in Greenbrier County's Emergency Management Agency on Monday were monitoring snowfall and waiting to see how severe a blizzard forecasted for the county's western mountains would turn out to be. "Our main concern at this time is power outages," said an agency spokesman.

Marlinton is about a half-hour drive from Snowshoe Mountain and Mayor Joe Smith doesn't expect the town will get anywhere near the same amount of snow as Snowshoe, but even if it does, "you just live with it and handle it,'' Smith said. "We're prepared. We've got our plows and our salt trucks ready.''

As natural snowfall began to pile up on 4,800-foot Snowshoe Mountain Resort's ski slopes on Monday, snowmaking crews began firing up the resort's array of snow guns to add depth to the late October snowfall. The resort is planning a Thanksgiving weekend season debut for its skiing and snowboarding operations.

"The best thing about an early season snowfall like this is that it gets people thinking about snow and makes them realize that winter is right around the corner," said Joe Stevens, president of the West Virginia Ski Areas Association.

In Preston County, one of 14 counties under a blizzard warning, rain and fog hugged Caddell Mountain at midday. People at the Shop N Save supermarket in Terra Alta picked up bread, milk and cat food, but all laughed off the dire predictions they saw on a cable television channel where forecasters didn't differentiate in elevations.

Snowshoe's highest peak in Pocahontas County is more than 4,800 feet, while Terra Alta sits at an elevation of about 2,500 feet. Morgantown, about 40 miles northwest of Terra Alta, sits below 1,000 feet.

"I never have been worried. ... The only guy that can keep a job is the weather man,'' said Homer Bennett, who has lived in Terra Alta a little less than three years. "He can tell a lie, get paid and still have a job.''

Judy Sines, who was restocking shelves as a few last-minute shoppers trickled in and out, has lived on the mountaintop for more than 30 years. She said big snows are nothing new to the area.

"All we can do is get prepared and hope for the best,'' she said. "People around here ... you know what it's like and you know how to get through it. You do the best you can do, and it is what it is.''

There was a big snowstorm a few days before Halloween last year, but Foy is so used to storms, she can't even remember how much fell.

"I heard Saturday night we were getting 5 feet and I just laughed,'' Foy said. "We have gotten 5 feet before. But they're saying this is the blizzard of all blizzards, we've never seen a blizzard like this before.

"I don't think so,'' she said. "It could be, maybe. And it could pass.''

Doug Rumer threw two loaves of bread in a cart before heading the 10 miles home to Aurora. That was about the extent of his preparations.

"I've got a generator. Most people up here do,'' he said. "It's no worries. We're used to it. ... We just sit at home and play cards.''

A wind advisory – packing gusts of up to 55 miles per hour – is in effect for much of the state through Tuesday afternoon, including Kanawha, Putnam, Boone and Lincoln counties.       

Up to 4 inches of rain is expected in some parts of the state by day's end .

"We're fortunate at the outset of this storm to start out with dry soil conditions," NWS meteorologist Julia Ruthford said. The dry conditions buy a little more time before the ground becomes saturated, but with up to 4 inches of rain predicted in 24 hours, flooding is possible.

Appalachian Power spokesman Phil Moye said Sunday that in addition to putting its own workers on notice, more than 350 crews have been secured from others companies within the system of parent American Electric Power, which serves nearly 440,000 customers in 24 West Virginia counties.

"The weather pattern certainly looks like it could impact our service territory and cause power outages," Moye said. "If the weather continues to develop in a way that we could have major power outages, then we'll request more [help]."

Paul Johansen, assistant chief in charge of game management for the Division of Natural Resources wildlife resources section, said wildlife staff are prepared to step in and help if needed. During an emergency, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin can mobilize DNR, including not only about 100 state conservation officers, but also game and fish management staff.

The wildlife resources section operates a fleet of about 100 vehicles, many of them four-wheel drive, and many equipped with chainsaws and other emergency gear. DNR can also call on a fleet of boats to help in the event of flooding.

Predictions of gusty winds and a predicted 9- to 17-inch snowfall prompted officials at the New River Gorge National River to close all visitor centers, campgrounds and trails in the 72,808-acre preserve until further notice. Park rangers said trees damaged or weakened by this summer's derecho windstorm and now threatened by wet, heavy snow made visitation to the National Park Service unit especially hazardous.

Dana Waldo, senior vice president and general manager for Frontier Communications in West Virginia, said Frontier has generators and battery backup to help keep telephone service operating in the event of power outages. He said the company was able to keep phones working following the June 29 derecho windstorm.

Waldo said Frontier crews have checked safety equipment and supplies, stockpiled emergency repair equipment and supplies and equipped repair vehicles with extra fuel, fluids and lighting.

West Virginia already has had a busy year dealing with weather-related emergencies. The June 29 windstorm known as a derecho left more than 680,000 state customers without electricity, many for up to two weeks, in the middle of a heat wave.

Public school classes were canceled in Berkeley, Grant, Hampshire, Hardy, McDowell, Mercer, Mineral, Morgan, Pendleton, Raleigh and Summers counties on Monday, and students were sent home early in Fayette, Greenbrier, Monroe, Nicholas, Pocahontas and Randolph.

The most recorded snowfall from a single storm in West Virginia was 57 inches in Pickens in post-Thanksgiving 1950, the National Weather Service said.Gazette staff writers Rick Steelhammer, Phil Kabler, Rusty Marks, Travis Crum and The Associated Press contributed to this report. 


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