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STORM UPDATE: Nearly 265,000 in W.Va. without power

By Staff, wire reports

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Thousands of people in West Virginia were without power as the remnants of Hurricane Sandy dumped heavy, wet snow across the region late Monday and early today. Emergency officials were warning that it could be days before power is restored.

Appalachian Power had more than 150,000 customers without power after 3 p.m. Tuesday, including more than 45,000 customers in Kanawha County, nearly 13,000 in Fayette County and more than 10,000 in Boone County. In Roane County, 96 percent of Appalachian Power customers were without power, and in Wyoming County, nearly 90 percent didn't have power.

First Energy reported more than 120,000 customers without power at 3 p.m., including more than 90 percent of customers in Preston, Pendleton, Randolph, Webster and Barbour counties.

As of late Tuesday morning, the highest reported snowfall in the state was 24 inches in the Randolph County town of Bowden, said Liz Somerville, a National Weather Service meteorologist based in Charleston, Nearby, Elkins had nearly a foot of snow, she said.

Earlier Tuesday, the weather service reported 17 inches of snow in Webster Springs and 15 inches on the ground in Fayetteville.

Webster Springs received 17 inches of snow, while 15 inches was on the ground in Fayetteville Tuesday morning, the National Weather Service said. Charleston had recorded about 8 inches just before noon, Somerville said. Beckley, Bluefield and Lewisburg all got around 16 inches of snow.

Somerville said that the unexpectedly heavy snowfalls in the area came because Hurricane Sandy's path was slightly farther north than expected.

"If it would have tracked slightly south, we wouldn't have seen anything," she said. "Since it tracked a little bit north of [where we expected] we wound up with a decent snowstorm."

At Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's request, President Barack Obama declared a federal state of emergency in the state early Tuesday. Tomblin told all non-essential state employees not to come to work on Tuesday.

Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said early voting was suspended in six counties: Braxton, Jefferson, Morgan, Nicholas, Preston and Randolph.

"Our whole county is pretty much cut off. There's no power, no electricity pretty much everywhere in the county,'' said Jim Wise at Randolph County emergency management.

Wise said the situation was similar in neighboring Tucker County, where the 911 system was down. Tucker County's 911 calls were being handled by Randolph County.

"People are pretty resilient in this area. They're used to inclement weather such as this -- usually later in the year. But it's not something they're unaccustomed to. They understand there's only so much they can do. They're going to stay in and stay as warm as they can,'' he said.

Kanawha County officials said early voting would continue as usual in Kanawha County until 5 p.m., but sent all non-essential county workers home at about 2 p.m.

"Employee safety is the number one order of the day," said Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper. "This continues to be a major weather event in the Kanawha Vally and may be for an extended period of time."

Numerous roads across the state were closed Tuesday morning, including Interstate 68 from near Morgantown to the Maryland state line, W.Va. 39 in Nicholas County, W.Va. 3 in Lincoln County, U.S. 35 in Mercer County and U.S. 250 in Randolph County.

"I-68 is really nasty, especially in Preston County,'' said Terrance Lively with the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Police rescued several motorists stranded on I-68, but traffic was moving again on the interstate this afternoon. 

The interstate was shut down overnight from Morgantown to the Maryland line after five tractor-trailers jack-knifed. Monongalia County interim emergency management director Michael G. Wolfe says that section has reopened.

Seven emergency shelters were set up, mainly in mountainous counties, and the West Virginia National Guard had teams in eight counties to help local authorities deal with weather-related problems, she said.

A spokesman for Fayette County's emergency services office said Tuesday morning that about 80 percent of the county was without electricity, and trees and power lines downed by 15 inches of wet, heavy snow are blocking roads at numerous locations. No major accidents are reported, "but there are way too many minor ones," he said.

Shelters were set up in several counties, including Berkeley, Jefferson, Monongalia, Morgan, Nicholas, Preston and Wyoming. In Kanawha County, officials planned to open shelters at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Sissonville, the Salvation Army on Charleston's West Side, the Kanawha City Recreation Center and the Hansford Center in St. Albans.

Those who are heading to a shelter should bring with them prescription and emergency medication, extra clothing, pillows, blankets, hygiene supplies, flashlights with extra batteries, books for entertainment, basic snacks, baby food and formula, diapers, chairs as well as identification or insurance papers and comfort items.     

At noon, a blizzard warning remained in effect for Fayette, Grant, Greenbrier, McDowell, Nicholas, Pendleton, Pocahontas, Preston, Raleigh, Randolph, Tucker, Webster and Wyoming counties. The warning was expected to continue until 8 a.m. Wednesday.

Several other counties, including Kanawha and Putnam, were under a winter weather warning until 5 p.m. Tuesday. Eastern Panhandle counties faced flood warnings and watches.

More than 400 contractors from as far away as Oklahoma and Texas were brought in to help Appalachian Power assess damage to power equipment and restore electricity, said Appalachian Power spokesman Phil Moye.

"It is a bit of a surprise to see the snow go into the lower elevations,'' Moye said. "We were expecting it in higher elevations. To go into those lower elevations is causing additional problems.

"It's clear we're going to need more help.''

Echoing emergency officials around West Virginia, state spokeswoman Leslie Fitzwater urged people to stay off the roads.

"It's hazardous out there. It's definitely not over. Stay in if you can, don't venture out. We need the roads open for first responders to get out there and do the work they need to do," Fitzwater said.

Fitzwater said residents who have not yet prepared an emergency kit still have time.

"The most important things are flashlights, batteries, candles, non-perishable food and water," she said, "and blankets, because unlike the derecho, this time it's cold."

Traffic on Interstate 79 north of Charleston was reduced to a maximum speed of about 40 mph in several areas, as vast stretches of interstate remained covered with snow or a layer of clinging slush early Tuesday morning.

Travel on Interstate 77 North was treacherous as well, with several accidents occurring both northbound and southbound between the Edens Fork and Tuppers Creek exits early Tuesday. A tractor-trailer jackknifed near the Tuppers Creek exit about 8 a.m. and slid off the roadway.

Kanawha County Manager Jennifer Sayre said the Metro 911 Center received 1,661 calls since it began to snow at about 1 a.m. Calls included 31 accidents with injuries, 60 accidents without injuries, 58 reports of power lines down and 45 trees down.

Kanawha officials said the Emergency Operations Center is open and able to take non-emergency calls, including providing information about power outages and shelters. Call 304-756-8748 or 304-746-8743. Officials urged residents to call 911 only in the event of an actual emergency.

County officials again reminded drivers that a non-working traffic light is to be treated as a four-way stop sign.

Several people were stuck on side roads in Kanawha County, Sayre said Tuesday morning.

West Virginia State University canceled classes, and Marshall University closed its campuses in South Charleston, Teays Valley and Beckley, although the main Huntington campus was still open.

The University of Charleston will be closed until 2 p.m. Wednesday. 

The Kanawha County Public Library closed all of its branches on Tuesday. The Ashton Place Kroger off Corridor G is also closed.

In Putnam County, W.Va. 34 between Winfield and Teays Valley was closed for several hours before reopening Tuesday afternoon.

Hundreds of calls have come into the 911 center this morning about power lines down and numerous car wrecks have been reported, according to dispatchers.

In Nicholas County, emergency services officials had received reports of at least three residential roof collapses attributed to the wet snow, which reached accumulations of more than two feet in the Richwood and Nettie areas.

"Right now, 84 percent of Nicholas County is without power and the roads are very slick and hazardous," said Carla Hennessey, director of emergency services. "A lot of roads are closed due to fallen trees blocking the roadways. You can't get very far in Nicholas County."

According to the state Department of Transportation, U.S. 250 is closed in sections of Barbour, Randolph and Pocahontas counties due to fallen trees. Storm-toppled trees have also closed W.Va. 38 and W.Va. 72 in Tucker County, and are blocking U.S. 219 from just south of Parsons to the Randolph County line.  In Preston County, Interstate 68 is closed from Exit 15 at Coopers Rock State Forest to the Maryland state line.

At White Grass Touring Center in Tucker County's Canaan Valley, 28 inches of snow had piled up by 7 a.m. on Tuesday. The cross-country ski resort had scheduled a pre-season trail-clearing weekend for friends of the resort starting on Saturday, but this year's session will involve "clearing trees on skis," operator Chip Chase posted on White Grass's website.

In Looneyville, Left Hand and Amma in Roane County, residents woke up to an inch or two of dense wet snow, despite National Weather Service predictions of little or no accumulation of snow overnight. W.Va. 36, a major thoroughfare through the county, was covered in snow within minutes after the passage of snowplows.

Lively said there had been no evacuations as of early Tuesday morning but emergency officials were monitoring Opequon Creek in the Eastern Panhandle, which was expected to flood.


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