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In W.Va., Napolitano vows 'every available resource' after storm

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Speaking in front of a line of West Virginia Army National Guard trucks loaded with pallets of food and drinking water, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Saturday pledged to bring "every available resource to bear" to complete the state's recovery from Superstorm Sandy.

"Sandy was one of the most serious storms ever to face us, leaving a swath of destruction the size of Western Europe," Napolitano said. "My heart goes out to those who have lost homes and businesses here in West Virginia."

Napolitano was briefed on, and shown images of, storm damage and the state's recovery effort during a presentation at West Virginia National Guard headquarters by Adj. Gen. James Hoyer, assisted by state emergency management director Jimmy Gianato. The briefing included video teleconference sessions with emergency officials in hard-hit Preston and Randolph counties.

"I want to thank you for all you have done and all you are doing to care for those still out there needing help," Napolitano said. "The derecho you went through was bad enough, but having this on its heels is a big blow. The only silver lining may be that FEMA still has an office here, and it's still open."

Saturday's briefing also was attended by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.

Among items covered in the briefing were:

  • The number of homes and businesses without power has dropped from more than 300,000 to less than 60,000.
  • National Guard critical-infrastructure teams are examining school buildings in areas where deep accumulations of snow remain to make sure they are structurally sound before reopening.
  • Facebook and other social media are being used to monitor for unmet needs, since "even in a power outage, people somehow manage to get their I-phones up and running," according to Hoyer.
  • Air National Guard bases in Charleston and Martinsburg are playing a key regional role in distributing federal aid materials, and could prove valuable in future emergencies.
  • National Guard helicopters are being used to deliver supplies to, and evacuate people from, remote areas in Preston, Tucker and Nicholas counties.
  • Trees in counties with the heaviest snow accumulations have been broken by high winds, and then been uprooted from soggy ground as the snow melts, prompting the need for numerous chainsaw crews from the state Division of Highways, National Guard, state Division of Forestry, U.S. Forest Service, and private contractors to clear roads.
  • Restoration of power and the clearing of snow and trees from secondary roads are the state's top two remaining recovery tasks.

Hoyer told Napolitano that the often unsung work by volunteer firefighters, ambulance personnel, and Division of Highways crews plays a key role in the state's continuing recovery effort.

"I'd take West Virginia's first responders and [Division] of Highways crews to war with me any time," he said. "They're that dedicated."

After Tomblin praised the federal response to West Virginia's tornadoes in March, a derecho in June and the hurricane-generated blizzard in October, Napolitano quipped, "You know, there are easier ways to get on my speed dial."

Napolitano said President Obama "has been very clear that our mission is to lean forward and get resources to the people who need them just as fast as possible."

She noted that the president signed a disaster declaration making possible federal reimbursement for recovery of expenses needed to restore state and local infrastructure the day before then-Hurricane Sandy made landfall.

"That allowed us to put key assets in strategic locations before the storm hit," said Tomblin, who also is seeking a major-disaster declaration, which would extend federal assistance to individuals and families affected by the storm.

Tomblin said a list of polling places for Tuesday's General Election is being given top priority by power-restoration crews.

"It looks like about 99 percent of polling places will be open as planned," he said. "Everyone will have the opportunity to vote."

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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