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State's hardest-hit counties on the mend

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Counties hit hard by the effects of superstorm Sandy are beginning to pick up the pieces, but the road to recovery is daunting as each faces its own set of problems.

It has become a team effort in five counties hit hard by the storm.

A common scene is chain saw crews from the state Division of Forestry working with members of the National Guard to clear trees from the roads so Division of Highways workers can remove snow.

More than 168,000 customers of the two major state power companies remained without power Thursday, and in some counties more than 80 percent of residents were affected.

As day five begins, some worry that supplies may run out before power returns.

Preston County

In West Virginia's northeast corner, Preston County sits covered by a blanket of 3 feet of heavy, wet, packed snow. That's not unusual for the wintry months in high-altitude towns like Terra Alta, but it is in October.

About 82 percent of Preston County residents were without power Thursday, and a number of roads, especially secondary roads, were impassable, said Clark Nicklow, a spokesman for Preston's Office of Emergency Management.

First Energy subsidiary Mon Power's website said 13,744 customers lacked service.  

Division of Highways workers couldn't plow the snow because of fallen trees, Nicklow said.

Crews from the Division of Forestry and FEMA armed with chain saws were working hand in hand with the National Guard to remove trees.

The snow is beginning to pack down and melt, and the trees seemed to have stopped falling, Nicklow said.

"Right now, we're worried about the 3 feet of heavy, wet, packed snow on buildings," he said.

The canopy covering the Mountaineer Mart, Terra Alta's only gas station, collapsed Wednesday over the gas pumps.

The National Guard brought in an 8,000-gallon tanker of fuel and another smaller distribution truck to keep all of the vehicles moving.

"They will make a lot of headway," Nicklow said of the teams. "It's not like they can cut a tree and plow a mile of road. They cut a tree and move to cut another tree and maybe move 10 feet and cut more trees.

"Trees are the biggest problem, hindering roads getting plowed and power being restored."

The Preston County Commission took the extraordinary step of raiding its own budget to put private contractors on the roads to help clear debris.

"We've never done that before," said Commission President Craig Jennings. "We set aside $100,000, and we're hoping to get a half dozen crews out here for a week or so."

He did not know when the roads would be open and had heard it would be seven to 10 days before power was restored.   

"If someone would give you an estimate on how long it would take to get all the roads opened, I'd say they didn't know what they were talking about," Jennings said.

"There are some areas we can't even get in to survey. Many roads are still one lane where local citizens have cut their way through.

"I figure there is at least a week to get into every one of these places."

And more snow was in the forecast, he said.

It was raining and misty in Kingwood Thursday and had been snowing in Terra Alta. The National Weather Service was calling for snow today in Preston County.

"We could do without any more snow," Nicklow said.

Shelters were open at the Bruceton Mills Volunteer Fire Department, Terra Alta Ambulance Squad and the Kingwood Civic Center.

Webster County

In Webster County, spirits were high until Thursday, when fears began to mount about gas and food supplies.

Richard Rose Jr., county emergency manager, said Thursday he expected the gasoline to run out sooner rather than later.

"Due to the road conditions and the power being out, we've only got two gas stations in the whole county that have gas, and they should be about ready to run out any time now," Rose said. "We're hoping to get some shipments in to those folks, but who knows when that will come?"

More than 80 percent of Webster County's residents were without power, including those working at the Emergency Operations Center in Webster Springs.

The operations center was running on generator power Thursday and had been since the power went out Monday, he said. Webster County Memorial Hospital also was running on generator power.

Mon Power's website showed 4,591 customers in the county without service.

Rose, who doesn't have power at his home near Cowen, said county officials were hearing from Mon Power that restoration could come as late as next Friday.

How they were going to open polling places for Election Day on Tuesday still was up in the air, he said.

Many roads still were closed as crews worked to clear debris and snow. Rose said crews were clearing primary arteries and few secondary routes were open. Work started Thursday morning on W.Va. 15, a main artery through the county.

Webster County was hit hard by snow, with the lower elevations receiving 18 inches and the higher elevations receiving more than 6 feet.

"We're getting more resources now," Rose said. "The National Guard is in here with a couple of graders, and Forestry provided chain saw teams to clear the trees and branches out.

"The National Guard and the volunteer fire departments are really keeping us going. I don't know where we'd be without them."

He said guardsmen and firefighters have been taking food and supplies to residents and portable oxygen tanks to those who need them.

The heavy snow has caused property damage as well. Bill's Sports Shop in Diana collapsed under the weight of the snow, and the porches of a few homes in Cowen fell, Rose said.

Officials also received reports of trees falling through homes, but Rose could not say how many as communications have been spotty since Monday.

"Everybody did really well the first few days, but day four is getting really trying," Rose said. "Everyone's nervous about running out of gas and food, but we're getting more and more resources every day."

Fayette County

Residents in Fayette County still were recovering from the June windstorm that destroyed more than 30 homes when snow began to fall by the foot.

At the Emergency Operations Center in Fayetteville, dispatchers and officials worked under generator power as the town still was without electric service.  

Theresa White, director of the Office of Emergency Services, said at the peak of the outage more than 80 percent of county residents were without power, but that number fell to just under 34 percent Thursday as Appalachian Power crews worked through the night.

"We've really improved a lot," she said. "Our roads are no longer totally impassable."

White said 18 of the county's main arteries were closed by snow and debris but have been reopened, shifting the focus to secondary roads.

Chain saw teams from Forestry and the Fayette County Sheriff's Office were cutting trees while the National Guard moved them from the road so highway workers could clear snow.   

Fayetteville had about a foot of "really tight, really wet, compacted" snow Thursday.

Accumulations in Lookout were about 2.5 feet and in Danese, 3.5 feet, she said. When asked what residents of those communities were doing, she replied, "Shoveling. Lots of shoveling."

Officials are worried about people in homes damaged in the June windstorm. She said Fayette County had more than 800 FEMA applicants with damage.

"We had over 30 destroyed homes," White said. "I don't even know how many of them had walls collapse off the side of their homes. They've done a little bit of work but could only do so much or as far as their money went, Band-Aid patches or tarps on their roofs.

"And now this."

She said the application period still was open for the summer windstorm. She wasn't sure how officials would deal with damage from this storm - what would be considered initial damage and secondary damage.

Another growing concern is flooding. She said officials worry about the snow melting and flowing into creeks and streams, causing them to rise. Add to that the rain forecast for the weekend.

She kept a sense of optimism, however.

"It's getting better, a lot better," she said. "As power comes back on, it's going to be better for everyone, and we can get back to some sense of normalcy."

Braxton County

Many of the 4,500 people in Braxton County still were stranded in their homes as the roads were being cleared, said Fred Thompson, Braxton's emergency operations director.

He said there was between 18 inches and 2 feet of snow on the ground at peak. On Thursday, it had started to pack down and melt.

James Putnam, a worker at the Division of Highways office in Braxton County, said crews cleared most of the main roads and were working on the secondary roads. On some roads only one lane is open.

Crews have been working around the clock with graders and other heavy equipment.

"It's looking a lot better now," Putnam said.

Guardsmen were driving Humvees through areas that were hard to access to deliver food and supplies to stranded residents.

Guard members also were checking on residents, and a shelter remained open at the National Guard armory in Gassaway.

"It's been rough, but we're getting through," Thompson said.

Nicholas County

Eleven businesses and homes have collapsed under the weight of the heavy, wet snow that fell on Nicholas County in the storm.

There were 2 to 3 feet on the ground Wednesday in Summersville, but that had dropped to about 18 inches on Thursday.

"This storm just kind of sat over us and spun," said Diane Martin, a 911 dispatcher assisting in the Emergency Operations Center. "We knew it was coming, but we were as ready as we could be."

She said 10,112 customers, or about 82 percent of the county's residents, remained without power Thursday. Two shelters remained open in Summersville and one in Richwood, where snow accumulations were about 2 feet.

Martin said crews were working Thursday to get secondary roads open. Primary roads, such as U.S. 19, were open but there wasn't much traffic.

"Basically people are just staying in their houses trying to stay warm," she said.

She said guardsmen have been transporting food and taking residents to shelters. More guard members arrived Thursday, she said.

The phones were ringing non-stop at the Emergency Operations Center, Martin said, as residents began to get telephone service back. She said cellphone service still was spotty.

"I haven't had time to stop and think," Martin said. "We've had the phones up to our ears most of the day. We're trying to help people the best we can, and the National Guard has just been awesome.

"Everyone has been working together as a team."

Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at or 304-348-4850.


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