50 mph winds and 2 to 4 inches of snow predicted
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Highways crews will be out in force through the weekend as the state braces for another major winter storm.
A strong cold front brought heavy winds and rain through much of the region Thursday.
The National Weather Service forecast rains would begin turning to snow in some areas early Friday morning, with snow continuing through Saturday. Higher elevations are predicted to receive more than a foot of snow in coming days.
Eastern mountain counties -- including Fayette, Nicholas, Pocahontas and Randolph counties -- are under a winter storm warning through 2 p.m. Saturday.
The storm comes at the beginning of the Christmas holiday travel season.
National travel firm AAA was predicting more than 93 million Americans would travel more than 50 miles between Saturday and New Year's Day.
With increased traffic looming, highways officials spent Thursday preparing for the storm.
Department of Transportation spokesman Brent Walker said road crews planned to be out in full force beginning Thursday night to begin removing snow and treating roads for ice.
"Our maintenance crews will be out there treating and plowing as necessary making sure the interstates and primary roads remain clear," Walker said.
Officials and district managers heard a briefing from meteorologists Thursday morning on the latest conditions. Walker said forecasts predicted the snow would be concentrated in areas along the West Virginia Turnpike and east of Interstate 79.
To prepare, Turnpike officials planned to begin operating in what they call an "enhanced preparedness mode" at 6 p.m. Thursday.
The enhanced mode was created in the aftermath of the December 2009 snowstorm, which left a number drivers stranded on a snow-covered Turnpike for several hours.
Officials have taken several steps in recent years to avoid a repeat of that scenario.
Walker said the enhanced preparedness mode means there will be extra Courtesy Patrols, pre-positioned snow plow trucks and extra maintenance forces out in order to clear winter weather and assist any stranded drivers.
"We have also spoken with and put on alert some of the towing companies in the region to help us out," he said.
Crews in rural areas will also be equipped with chainsaws to help clear roads of any trees downed by heavy snow.
With crews prepared, Walker said officials are now asking the public to take appropriate steps to prepare also.
"We're doing everything we can do, now we want the traveling public to do everything they can do," he said. "That includes making sure their cars are in good working order, that they have good tread on their tires, and to make sure they have a blanket and other essentials in case they get stranded.
"Also, if the conditions get too bad, they need to really think twice about whether they need to travel at all," Walker said.
Officials hope to avoid a repeat of what happened earlier this year on Interstate 68, when several tractor-trailers were stranded near the Maryland border during the heavy snow brought by Superstorm Sandy.
Highways officials had to close the road while crews rescued the stranded vehicles. That was time crews could not spend plowing and treating the rest of the highway.
Walker said incidents like that are the reason highways officials ask motorists to think twice about heading out in bad conditions.
"Anytime there's an incident on the road, we're going to stop and assist," he said. "We're happy to do it -- it's part of what we do -- but we'd prefer to stay on the road and plow.
"That's why we ask that it's looking too bad, you either not travel or pull over or stop somewhere and let the Division of Highways and the Parkways Authority do what they do," Walker said.
Those who do travel will be able to use the state's new 511 information system to get updates on road conditions before and during their trips.
Walker said drivers can visit WV511.org before they leave to view statewide road conditions and travel alerts for all major state highways.
Drivers can also download the free WV511 Drive Safe app on their iPhone or Android phone. The app uses the smartphone's location service to provide audio warnings regarding travel conditions across the area.
Once they download the app, users have the option of adjusting how often the phone checks for alerts and the area those alerts cover.
With the app, users can choose to receive alerts for an area between 5 and 500 miles away from their location. Contact writer Jared Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5148.Follow him at www.Twitter.com/JaredWV.