Power outages feared as wet, heavy snowfall approaches state

State emergency services personnel were preparing to do battle with a snowstorm reminiscent of 2012's Superstorm Sandy, as a winter weather system with the potential to dump 10 to 18 inches of wet, heavy snow on the Kanawha Valley and up to 2 feet on West Virginia's eastern mountains approached the state from the west.

In the Charleston area, the snow is expected to begin falling sometime between 9 and 11 a.m. on Friday and continue into Saturday night, said Faith Borden, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Charleston forecast office, during a media briefing in the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management's situation room in the State Capitol.

“We have the potential for a very major winter storm,” Borden said.

In the state's southern coalfields, up to a quarter-inch glazing of ice could accompany the 6 to 12 inches of snow expected to fall there, Borden said, adding to the hazards of driving and increasing the potential for power outages.

“We're expecting a wet, heavy snow, comparable to what we had with Hurricane Sandy,” said state Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Jimmy Gianato. “Power outages are our primary concern.”

Hurricane Sandy coated Charleston's hillsides with up to 10 inches of snow and blanketed the state's eastern mountains with snow up to 3 feet deep. That storm knocked out power to one out of every four West Virginia homes and businesses.

Many counties closed schools for Friday, including Kanawha County, where all employees were told not to report. Courthouses were closed throughout the state. In Kanawha County, the courthouse and Judicial Annex were closed, as well as the library and Coonskin Park. State Supreme Court offices in Charleston were also closed.

Officials with Charleston and Kanawha County said they did not have immediate plans to open shelters, but would do so if necessary. Kanawha County planned to open its emergency operations center at 7 a.m. Friday.

Karen Allen, director of the American Red Cross's regional disaster office in Cross Lanes, said volunteers across the state have been alerted to the potential need for establishing shelters and feeding centers in areas where power may be knocked out.

“We have a number of locations on standby across the state for use as shelters,” Allen said. “Our equipment and supplies are being readied for distribution.”

“We're pre-positioning personnel and equipment,” said Lt. Col. Melissa Shade of the West Virginia Army National Guard. “Right now, we're using our full-time staff, but additional personnel could be called to active duty” if the weather emergency calls for such action, she said.

National Guard troops would likely be put to work clearing downed trees from roads and structures, as they did in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Drivers should consult www.wv511.org to receive updated highway conditions before taking to the road, said Division of Highways spokesman Brent Walker.

“The snow could be coming down so hard at times that it will hinder our ability to keep up with it,” Walker said. “Any expectations of seeing clear pavement during the middle of the storm are unlikely.”

Roads getting the highest priority for snow removal are interstate highways, elements of the Appalachian Corridor highway system, and the more heavily traveled U.S. and state highways. Walker said. “Many of the secondary roads won't be treated until the storm clears up,” he said. Walker said that DOH snowplow and salt-spreading trucks “get stuck in the same slow-moving traffic and accident backups that you and I do,” and urged travelers to avoid driving during the storm if at all possible.

People should also take care to see that their vehicles are prepared for winter driving.

“My understanding is that a box truck with bald tires” was responsible for the accident on Wednesday near Institute that forced DOH officials to close a section of Interstate 64 near Institute, Walker said.

“My advice is to stay at home unless you really need to be out on the road,” said Capt. Ron Arthur of the West Virginia State Police. “If you do have to be driving, use common sense and slow down.”

West Virginia American Water said Thursday that it would also be staging additional employees in order to handle any type of water main breaks or service disruptions as a result of the storm.

In a press release, water company officials said they had already readied generators at pumping stations and water treatment plant in case power was to be cut to those electricity-dependent locations. Water outages will be posted to West Virginia American Water's website at www.amwater.com/wvaw/alerts/WV-AlertList.html.

“Our team will work around the clock in the safest manner possible to any issues that develop,” said Jeff McIntyre, West Virgniia American Water's president. “Heavy ice and snow, road closures and poor driving conditions may lengthen response times, so we appreciate your patience and understanding if our workers have to carry out their tasks under very challenging conditions.”

Staff writers Andrew Brown, David Gutman, Elaina Sauber and Daniel Desrochers contributed to this report.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169, or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

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