By Vicki Smith
The same heavily forested mountains and steep, hilly terrain that give West Virginia its natural beauty are slowing thousands of workers trying to restore electricity to more than 228,000 customers who remained in the dark six days after a violent storm tore across the state.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, that’s what makes West Virginia ‘almost heaven,”’ Mon Power spokesman Todd Meyer said Thursday. “When you have a storm like this, that’s what make it hell to restore the power. The great things run against us.”
At the same time, the state has been in a dynamic weather system, with almost daily thunderstorms that knock out customers in areas that were either already restored or that didn’t lose power after the first violent storm.
The storms did not provide much relief for thousands of residents who have no air conditioning. A heat advisory was in effect Thursday for the western half of the state, with 90-degree heat expected from the Northern Panhandle to the southern coalfields. Cooling stations and shelters remained open across the state.
The severe storm that tore across the state June 29 caused extensive damage to power lines and equipment. Huge metal transmission towers were crumpled, and dozens of twisting, narrow secondary roads were closed in places where travel can be slow going on a good day.
“It’s not a ‘go fix one thing and get 30,000 customers on at a time,”’ Meyer said. “There’s a lot of work in different areas.
“I know of at least 477 broken poles,” he said, “and that’s pretty much unprecedented, to have that many poles in that many place. And some of poles date back to the time that they were set by mules.”
Crews are navigating extremely difficult terrain to reach them.
“It’s more simple in the urban areas, where you have streets and sidewalks and pretty decent access to distribution lines,” Meyer said. “Where there’s crazy terrain, it’s going to take some time.”
In McWhorter, 18-year-old Sieara Fultineer, her brother and their parents passed the time with cookouts and riding their four-wheelers. They’re close to convenience stores and other places with power, but their house remained dark Thursday afternoon.
Every evening, the neighbors congregate and somebody grills dinner, she said, “then you just sit outside and talk til 9 or 10 o’clock, and then go to bed.”
Fultineer said it’s frustrating seeing power pop on so close and not have it.
“But they’re trying hard to get it on,” she said. “It’s too hot to work during the day.”
While utility crews continued restoring power, members of the West Virginia National Guard went door to door with firefighters, police, church groups and others to reach people who were still awaiting help.
The help came at just the right time for Dewan Dunbar, 40, whose family ran out of food Wednesday night.
“Y’all are lifesavers,” she said as the Guard pulled up and started unloading about a dozen boxes of canned good and dry goods and two cases of water onto her wooden, wraparound porch. The three Guard members handed out juice drinks to Dunbar’s grandchildren, who were playing in the front yard with several dogs.
Despite the heat and the lack of power or food, the family was in good spirits.
“It hasn’t been too bad,” she said.
With land lines out and many cell phones out of power, the only way to reach residents of rural outlying areas is to go door to door, Adj. Gen. James Hoyer said. Often, neighbors are taking care of each other. In one community, homes on one side of the street got their power back, so they ran extension cords across the road to their neighbors, he said.
Hoyer, who has been in the Guard for 31 years, said West Virginia never has had a statewide disaster of this magnitude. The storm affected 53 of the state’s 55 counties. Some counties were almost 100 percent without power.
Hoyer said he was irritated when he heard television news readers comparing the storm to the response failures after Hurricane Katrina.
“This is absolutely nothing like it. We’re on top of this,” he said. “Do we have places where people need support that we still haven’t gotten to? I’m absolutely sure that’s the case. But to stabilize the situation when 678,000 households were initially without power, I think is significant. .. I’m pretty proud of the state of West Virginia and the way we’re handling this.”
At the same time, national media were trailing Tiger Woods on the golf course at The Greenbrier, a posh southern West Virginia resort. Some irritated area residents took to radio call-in shows to criticize owner Jim Justice for continuing with The Greenbrier Classic tournament when so many Greenbrier County residents were suffering.
Earlier this week, Justice said the resort has been donating money and labor to the restoration efforts. He defended his decision to continue the tournament, arguing the exposure is good for West Virginia.
“When things get really tough, we don’t drop our heads,” he said, “... we just say, ‘By dog, we’re not going to let it beat us. We’re just not going to let it beat us.’
“And to be perfectly honest, if they had never turned on the power here and we’d have never had a drop of water, well, I’d have had all of us standing out there holding candles.”
On Thursday, representatives from The Greenbrier and The PGA Tour Wives Association planned to load water and produce from the resort’s farms for delivery to the Lewisburg Emergency Operations Center. They also planned to join Mon Power representatives at a Lowe’s in Lewisburg to pass out water and ice at no charge to residents that remain without power.