By Vicki Smith
Black Hawk helicopters were sent up over mountainous rural areas of West Virginia on Friday to get a better sense of how many people remain cut off from the outside world by fallen trees, downed power lines and heavy snow from superstorm Sandy.
About 20 percent of Barbour and Randolph counties in the north-central part of the state remained cut off, and officials said about 70 percent of the homes and businesses in those counties were still without power. They worried about elderly and ill people who have been isolated since Monday.
State officials have declared six deaths linked to the storm, including one in Barbour County.
The unofficial toll, however, is likely higher. Barbour County Sheriff John Hawkins said several of his residents have died from pre-existing illnesses or natural causes such as heart attacks while shoveling snow.
“Could it be from the stress of the storm?” Hawkins said. “It could be.”
Randolph County emergency management director Jim Wise said no deaths in his county have yet been linked to the storm, but he was worried that would change as firefighters, National Guard teams and others push into remote areas.
“It’s always a concern with the ones who are isolated,” he said. “It’s a very good likelihood ... but we just don’t know until we can get to them.”
Wise said he’s had calls from across the country requesting welfare checks on friends and family, and first responders have gotten to every one of them. That work should become easier as the county and the state Division of Highways continue opening secondary roads, he said.
The West Virginia National Guard has activated 540 members across the state, including 18 liaison teams to emergency operations centers and 36 community-assessment teams, said Sgt. Anna-Marie Ward. Others are working on emergency power supplies, running heavy equipment, and dismantling and removing collapsed structures.
The 130th Airlift Wing in Charleston and the 167th Airlift Wing in Martinsburg are also receiving supplies from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and serving as staging centers.
Members of an Army and Air National Guard special operations unit flew a Black Hawk to remote mountaintop area near the tiny Preston County town of Cuzzart to aid snowbound residents there. One team checked the health of a 2-month-old boy and his mother and delivered four days’ worth of food, water and baby formula.
“They were running out of baby formula. They had less than a can left,” said Major Chris Brown.
That family elected to stay put, while a second team provided needed medicine to a 47-year-old neighbor and then helped that woman and a roommate reach National Guard Humvees to get off the mountain, Brown said. That team encountered scores of trees toppled by the storm, he said, while downed power lines were a concern in that area as well.
Preston County emergency management director Duane Hamilton said the guardsmen had been trying to reach the mother for several days by Humvee but couldn’t get past the obstacles, so when the weather cleared Friday, they flew in.
“They’ve been in here ever since the storm and done some amazing things,” Hamilton said, from delivering food, water, medicine and firewood to raking snow off roofs that residents feared might collapse.
Within the last 24 hours heavy snow collapsed a barn in Cransville, killing around 40 head of cattle, Craig Jennings head of the Preston County Commission said. No people were injured.
The Terra Alta gas station also was shut earlier this week after the canopy over the pumps collapsed due to snow. With the station’s pumps snowed under, Terra Alta residents must travel about 10 miles to the closest filling station. Again, no one was injured in that incident.
About 95,000 homes and businesses across West Virginia remained without power Friday afternoon, down from 136,000 Thursday afternoon.
FirstEnergy’s website said more than 64,000 customers were without electricity — nearly 24,000 of them in Preston and Randolph counties alone. The other hardest-hit counties include Barbour, Nicholas, Webster and Upshur.
Appalachian Power, meanwhile, said the number of customers without power was down to fewer than 31,000.
Restoration estimates vary, but Appalachian Power has said some customers might remain without power until Sunday night.
Meanwhile, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin were touring the affected areas, from Preston to Wyoming counties, to make sure first responders were getting the support they need.
Hawkins said flooding is his next concern. Some small streams are already out of their banks and covering roads, and he’s worried about melting snow around the Valley Head area raising river levels.
But overall, state officials and the National Weather Service say the threat of flooding is low, and the conditions are ideal for a slow melt-off of snow pack. Temperatures are warming up enough during the day to slowly melt the snow, but cooling off again at night.