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W.Va. Sandy deaths rise to 5, power outages drop

Oct. 31, 2012 @ 05:51 PM

PHILIPPI, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia's death toll climbed to at least five, including a legislative candidate struck by a falling tree limb, and hundreds of thousands remained without power Wednesday from the wet, heavy snow that superstorm Sandy dumped on the mountains, snapping trees like toothpicks, pulling down power lines and collapsing homes.

Many people began the long, arduous task of digging out, but thousands in remote, rural areas remained cut off, their land-line phones out of service and their roads rendered impassible.

Republican House of Delegates candidate John Rose Sr., 60, was checking fences on his 100-acre deer farm near Philippi when a falling tree limb struck him Tuesday afternoon, his son George Rose told The Associated Press.

"It was a big limb," the younger man said. "I don't even think he knew it hit him."

In Nicholas County, eight structures collapsed Tuesday under the weight of the snow, but no one was injured. They included an apartment complex, a grocery store, two convenience stores, a hardwood plant and three homes, said county Emergency Service Director Carla Hennessey.

The second floor of the apartment complex in Summersville collapsed onto the first, and the 72 residents were taken to shelters or went to be with relatives.

Hennessey said the storm left snow drifts as high as 5 feet in Richwood and 3 feet in Summersville.

"It's been really hard to check on our residents," she said. "Nicholas County is a widespread county. Even our primary roads have been impassible at times. We're just now getting into some secondary routes to check on people."

Meanwhile, power companies began restoring more electricity. Service remained out to nearly 218,000 customers Wednesday afternoon, down from 271,000 a day earlier.

At least 36 roads remained closed statewide.

In Barbour County, U.S. 119 north from Buckhannon to Philippi and U.S. 250 south from Philippi to Harding were lined with toppled trees and snapped limbs. Limbs that were still attached drooped low over the road under a burden of snow, and power and telephone lines lay on the ground.

Barbour County Sheriff John Hawkins said the situation is more dramatic on back roads, where many people are cut off.

"They can't get out in either direction, and they have no phones, no power, no anything," he said. "We haven't gotten into those rural areas yet to try to locate anybody who needs help."

Cellphone service in Philippi failed Tuesday night, so Hawkins is concerned about those who can't communicate.

Phil Hart, president of the Barbour County Commission and chief of the Belington Volunteer Fire Department, said firefighters have handled nearly 70 distress calls, including two from isolated hospice patients. On Wednesday, it took three hours for firefighters to deliver medical supplies to one of them. They had to park 3 miles away and walk in.

"I don't think people were 100 percent prepared," Hart said, because the forecasts were slightly off. "Most of the people were prepared for rain, but not snow and outages."

Details of the deaths were slow to trickle in, partially because of the communication problems.

George Rose told The Associated Press his father was with his wife when their all-terrain vehicle became stuck. She had begun walking away as he tried backing it up, George Rose said.

"She heard the limb break, but she had already walked a little ways. She didn't think anything of it, and didn't realize that anything was wrong. But then she saw he wasn't coming," the younger Rose said.

Lt. Phil Ferguson, a Barbour County sheriff's deputy and lifelong friend of the Rose family, said tree limbs nearly took out a sheriff's cruiser, too. Shortly after he moved it while clearing roads, four fell where it had been sitting.

"It could happen to any of us," he said. "It's bad out there."

John Rose was running in the House's 47th District. He had previously appeared at the Legislature as an advocate of deer farms, where captive herds are bred for hunting, as livestock and for commercial products.

"The whole county knew him," George Rose said. "He got a lot of other deer farmers started."

His name will remain on the ballot but there will be a special write-in period.

Leslie Fitzwater, spokeswoman for the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said the West Virginia medical examiner has confirmed five deaths as being storm-related, including Rose. The others were:

—a Raleigh County woman who died of hypothermia late Sunday, before the storm hit;

—a 40-year-old female driver who collided with a cement truck Monday in Tucker County;

—a 68-year-old Preston County woman who was ill and trying to get to a hospital, but died Tuesday when the family vehicle got stuck in snow.

—and a 51-year-old Upshur County man who died of carbon monoxide poisoning Tuesday.

Barbour County Emergency Services Director Cindy Hart said another local man died while shoveling snow at his home, but she declined to identify him until relatives had been notified. The medical examiner had not yet declared that death storm-related as of late Wednesday.

Goodwin identified the Tucker County woman who died as Nanci Hedrick of Davis, a front desk supervisor at the Canaan Valley Resort & Conference Center. Hedrick's car slid into the path of a cement truck on W.Va. Route 32 on Monday. The truck driver and his son were taken to the hospital, media outlets reported.

The storm that dumped at least 2 feet of snow in some higher elevations has blocked the utilities from using helicopters to assess damage to transmission lines. Instead, that work has been done on the ground, meaning it will take longer for crews to look over the lines in rural, mountainous areas.

"We're still in this damage assessment phase," Mon Power spokesman Mark Nitowski said. "People in West Virginia are very self-reliant and they've shown extreme patience with us."

Nitowski had no estimate on when power would be restored to 111,000 customers of Mon Power and Potomac Edison. At least 80 percent of customers in Barbour, Nicholas, Pendleton, Preston, Randolph, Tucker, Upshur and Webster counties had no electricity.

Appalachian Power's website said it had 113,000 outages Wednesday in southern West Virginia. In Kanawha County alone, 30,000 customers were out, but that had been reduced from 50,000 a day earlier. The 2,573 customers who lost service in Nicholas County represented 95 percent of the utility's customers in that county.

Appalachian Power spokesman Phil Moye said service is expected to be restored by Friday night in Beckley, Bluefield, Hamlin, Hico, Huntington, Logan, Pineville, Point Pleasant, Ripley, Wayne, Welch, and Williamson. Service is expected to be restored by late Sunday night in some other areas, including Charleston and Madison.