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Restoring power in W.Va. could take 'several days'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In words all too familiar to West Virginians after this summer's wind storms, state and power company officials said it would take days to restore electricity to thousands of residents and businesses after the remnants of Hurricane Sandy dropped an unexpectedly heavy amount of snow on the state.

"It looks like it will be several days before all power can be restored to all residents of the state," Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said late Tuesday afternoon.

Tomblin said the main problem for power companies is getting access to inspect lines and power stations in remote areas, since weather conditions are preventing inspections by helicopter.

"Many of them are on mountaintops that are not easily accessible by vehicles," Tomblin said of the transmission lines. "The bad news is they won't be able to fly until Thursday."

As of 10:30 p.m. Tuesday night, Appalachian Power had 125,830 customers without power in West Virginia -- nearly a third of the company's customers in the state.

Those without power included more than 39,000 in Kanawha County, more than 12,000 in Fayette County and 93 percent -- nearly all -- of Appalachian Power's 2,313 customers in Roane County.

Farther north, First Energy had more than 109,780 customers without power on Tuesday evening -- including more than 90 percent of customers in Lewis, Randolph, Tucker, Preston, Barbour and Pendleton counties.

Appalachian Power spokesman Phil Moye said it's too early to determine when power will be restored because the snow was still falling Tuesday afternoon, outage numbers keep going up and more trees could come down. Workers whose job is to assess damage were having trouble traveling in the heavily rural state.

 The biggest difference between the summer storm and this one was the timing. The derecho gave little warning. This time, Appalachian Power had 400 crews from as far away as Texas ready to assist because the utility had days to prepare for superstorm Sandy.

"I think the highways department and the state and county folks are going a good job with the roads," Moye said. "It's just a matter of snow continues to fall and the roads are in bad shape. That's the difference with the summer storm -- getting out there to assess damage."

Appalachian Power alone has 50 transmission lines and 30 distribution stations out of service, Tomblin said.

Still, the governor said, "We've made a lot of progress today. Our priorities are life saving, power restoration, and maintaining infrastructure."

"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 Valley and may be for an extended period of time."

At 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.

Early voting on Tuesday was suspended in several counties. As of Tuesday evening, only Braxton and Preston counties had called off early voting, according to Secretary of State Natalie Tennant's office.

Statewide, 26 shelters were open as of Tuesday afternoon, with an additional 50 on stand-by as needed, Tomblin.

National Guard units and Division of Forestry staff are coordinating with power companies to clear road of trees and other debris, he said.

National Guard units based in Charleston and Martinsburg will be distributing a total of 700,000 MREs (meals ready to eat) and 1.4 million liters of water to areas without power, the governor said.

"Those ... meals are going to be very helpful," Tomblin said.

Lt. Gen. James Hoyer, adjutant general of the state's National Guard, said there were 250 Guard members on storm duty, and Tomblin had authorized adding another 100.

Numerous roads across the state were closed at various times Tuesday, including Interstate 68 from near Morgantown to the Maryland state line, Interstate 77 in northern Kanawha County, W.Va. 39 in Nicholas County, W.Va. 3 in Lincoln County, W.Va. 34 in Putnam 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 Tuesday afternoon.

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.

"Our highway crews have been out working around the clock," Tomblin said.

Crews have had difficulty keeping primary roads clear, with snow squalls recovering cleared highways throughout the day.

"Our secondary roads are still in pretty bad condition," he said.

Flooding has been reported in the Eastern Panhandle, but Tomblin said snowfall and power outages are the biggest problems now faced by the state.

However, there are concerns about the Ohio River flooding by the end of the week, especially if an expected warming trend causes rapid melting of snow in northern West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania, he said.

That comes later, though. Local officials throughout the state couldn't think that far ahead.

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

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.

Earlier this month, maintenance crews for the state Division of Highways tested every single one of the state's salt trucks and snowplows.

It paid off, said DOH spokesman Brent Walker. He said the testing and run-throughs prepared road crews for this week's snowstorms.

"We've taken our dry runs, we've calibrated our instruments, and we've put on and tested the plows and salt bins," Walker said. "That's put us in good shape for the snow."

Anthony Gilmer, marketing coordinator for Yeager Airport, said all outbound flights from the airport were canceled on Tuesday, and only two incoming flights from Charlotte, N.C. were still on the schedule. Flights to and from Washington, D.C. and New York were canceled for Wednesday, as well as flights to Chicago, Atlanta and Detroit.

As of 7 p.m. Tuesday, schools in Boone, Braxton, Clay, Fayette, Greenbrier, Mercer, McDowell, Pendleton, Preston, Raleigh, Taylor and Upshur counties had been closed for Wednesday. University of Charleston officials also said their school would be closed Wednesday.

Kanawha County Schools are on a two-hour delay.

Tomblin said at 4 p.m. that a decision had not been made on whether state offices will reopen Wednesday.

"My guess is it will be much like today. We will request that essential individuals report to work, and go on a county-by-county basis," he said.

Temperatures were expected to rise slightly Wednesday to the mid-30s, said Joe Merchant, a National Weather Service meteorologist. More elevated areas of the state would get about 1-2 inches of additional snow, he said.

"The storm's center is just meandering to the north over Pennsylvania," Merchant said. "We are still very much under Sandy's influence."

Merchant said he expects more seasonal temperatures in the mid 50s by Thursday. Flooding is not anticipated because rivers are low and grounds are still dry from summer and fall.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.

Reach Travis Crum at travis.crum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.


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