By John Raby, Vicki Smith
Officials were investigating whether rain and wind from Hurricane Sandy caused a traffic fatality on Monday, as Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency prompted by the storm that also threatened to bring heavy snow to some parts of West Virginia.
Tomblin said one person was killed in a collision between a concrete truck and another vehicle in Tucker County, where the storm produced wind and rain. He also said at least 2,000 power customers were in the dark, and that small streams flooded in the northern and eastern panhandles. The governor briefed the media at the emergency operations command center in the basement of the state Capitol.
Forecasters expanded a blizzard warning Monday to at least 14 counties, warning that the storm could dump as much as 3 feet of snow on the state’s highest ridge tops where there are mainly ski resorts or sparsely populated areas. Eastern parts of the state expected to get up to 6 inches of rain.
Jimmy Gianato, director of the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said conditions will likely be at their worst overnight and early today before the storm moves on.
Tomblin advised residents to be ready for power outages and to stay off roads once high winds hit.
“This is going to be kind of a triple punch for us in West Virginia,” Tomblin said, citing the wind, rain and snow. “I don’t want anyone to panic, but at the same time they should be prepared for the storm as it moves through the state.”
Marlinton Volunteer Fire Department Capt. Gene Tracy said crews in Pocahontas County were preparing for the worst, including opening shelters if necessary.
“We’re not taking it lightly,” Tracy said.
Highway crews embarked on what could be a long week of snow removal, working along U.S. 219 in Pocahontas and Randolph counties and Interstate 64 east of Beckley.
Weather service meteorologist Tim Axford said the overwhelming majority of residents live in lower elevations where significantly lesser amounts of snow were expected. He said the amount of land above 3,000 feet — where the highest amount of snow was expected to fall — is minuscule. It does exist in seven counties but there are no towns of significant size involved.
Elkins, in Randolph County, is in a valley at 2,000 feet but is surrounded by significant mountain peaks to the east.
“People that live in Elkins may see 3 to 6 inches” of snow, Axford said, “but people who live just outside could see quite a bit more. It’s highly elevation dependent.”
In Preston County, one of 14 counties under a blizzard warning, rain and fog hugged Caddell Mountain at midday. People at the Shop ’n Save supermarket in Terra Alta picked up bread, milk and cat food, but all laughed off the dire predictions they saw on a cable television channel where forecasters didn’t differentiate in elevations.
Snowshoe’s highest peak in Pocahontas County is more than 4,800 feet, while Terra Alta sits at an elevation of about 2,500 feet. Morgantown, about 40 miles northwest of Terra Alta, sits below 1,000 feet.
“I never have been worried. ... The only guy that can keep a job is the weather man,” said Homer Bennett, who has lived in Terra Alta a little less than three years. “He can tell a lie, get paid and still have a job.”
Judy Sines, who was restocking shelves as a few last-minute shoppers trickled in and out, has lived on the mountaintop for more than 30 years. She said big snows are nothing new to the area.
“All we can do is get prepared and hope for the best,” she said. “People around here ... you know what it’s like and you know how to get through it. You do the best you can do, and it is what it is.”
There was a big snowstorm a few days before Halloween last year, but Deane Foy is so used to storms, she can’t even remember how much fell.
“I heard Saturday night we were getting 5 feet and I just laughed,” Foy said. “We have gotten 5 feet before. But they’re saying this is the blizzard of all blizzards; we’ve never seen a blizzard like this before.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “It could be, maybe. And it could pass.”
Doug Rumer threw two loaves of bread in a cart before heading the 10 miles home to Aurora. That was about the extent of his preparations.
“I’ve got a generator. Most people up here do,” he said. “It’s no worries. We’re used to it. ... We just sit at home and play cards.”
The most recorded snowfall from a single storm in West Virginia was 57 inches in Pickens in post-Thanksgiving 1950, the weather service said.
The weather could impact early voting, which has been under way since last week. At least one county — Morgan — suspended in-person balloting today, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said. At least eight other counties were closing their judicial offices, Supreme Court officials said.
Tomblin said state offices would open today, but that officials will use common sense as they watch storm conditions.