'Forgotten' West Virginia struggling in Sandy's aftermath

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The lights are back on in Lower Manhattan, but several West Virginia counties remain in the dark more than a week after Superstorm Sandy dumped up to 3 feet of snow in the state's higher elevations.

Officials also say it could take at least six months to clear fallen trees in some areas.

While the worst is over, about 12,000 customers remained without power late Thursday and some back roads were still inaccessible, even as work and school resumed for many.

FirstEnergy spokeswoman Patti Michel said power was expected to be restored to 95 percent of customers by midnight.

PG graphic: Effects of Sandy
(Click image for larger version)

Some residents believe the state is attracting less attention than other hard-hit areas because people might not realize loads of heavy snow has snapped tree branches and grounded scores of phone and power lines, said Cindy Chmel, a Red Cross volunteer who's working at a Preston County shelter.

"It's not a massive flood like everyone associates a massive disaster with," the Claysville resident said. "More than one person has come up to me and said, 'It's just like they've forgotten about us.' "

Displaced Terra Alta, W.Va., resident Don Stump said this storm was the worst he's seen in a county where winter snowstorms are frequent and unkind.

"[The public] is focusing on New York and New Jersey now because they're getting a second storm."

He doesn't feel abandoned, though, thanks to volunteer support at the Preston County shelter where he's been living for a week, he said.

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin requested a major federal disaster declaration last week that would bring help to areas most crippled by the storm and its aftermath.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano joined the governor for a storm damage assessment briefing Saturday in the capital, Charleston.

Schools in Preston County, where about a quarter of customers were without power Thursday, remained closed. Crews are coordinating with the school board and transportation department to clear roads of debris and fallen trees and hope to open schools next week, said Duane Hamilton, county emergency management director.

"In some areas of the county, it just looks like a war zone," he said.

Barbour County, where a state House of Delegates candidate was killed last week when a tree limb collapsed on him, is still dealing with downed trees from a June windstorm, said interim deputy emergency services director Jim Ancell.

He expects it could take at least six months to clear the fallen trees from this storm.

"We're all tired. We are recovering," he said. "It's just been devastating to the entire community."

Schools reopened Thursday in Webster County, where a 71-year-old woman died last week after falling under deep snow while attempting to feed her dogs.

Lorene Carpenter, secretary and accountant at Webster County High School, said 76 students were absent Thursday because of power outages, and three high school buses could not make their normal runs.

At home, not far from the school, Ms. Carpenter is still without power herself, managing with a cook stove and gas heat.

Some back roads still haven't been cleared, but her own were tended to by locals with tractors.

"I think that we here in West Virginia, we are determined to survive," she said. "Neighbors take care of neighbors here."

Last week, three Red Cross volunteers from southwestern Pennsylvania were assigned to the civic center in Kingwood, Preston County, which is acting primarily as a feeding shelter.

Ms. Chmel said her team has been feeding hundreds of linemen, utility works and displaced residents looking for a hot meal and refuge from the cold. About 15 residents remain there.

The civic center is scheduled to host an event Saturday, so they may move operations to a nearby church or fire hall if people are still in need of assistance.

"We're in the process of checking all the residents' areas to see if they've got power to get them back in their homes," she said.

Six people have been confirmed dead in Sandy-related deaths in West Virginia.

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Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944. First Published November 9, 2012 5:00 AM


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