The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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October 31, 2012

Sheriff encourages motorists to stay off roads

Gawkers satisfying a curiosity about Hurricane Sandy’s ice-laden storm and folks fetching an extra pack of cigarettes or foodstuffs created havoc Tuesday across much of Raleigh County.

Put simply, Sheriff Steve Tanner appealed to residents to stay put until the weather breaks, unless their mission is an absolute emergency.

“If it’s an emergency, call and let us know where you’re coming from and trying to get so we can kind of keep an eye out for you,” Tanner said.

Under a state of emergency, as Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared Monday afternoon, no one is supposed to be on the roads save for police, fire, ambulance crews and the like, but Tanner wasn’t sure if law enforcement officers can issue citations for non-emergency runs.

Tanner’s department had its hands full coming to the aid of motorists stranded in what he considered the most treacherous road conditions in his lifetime.

“Without any doubt, the roads are the worst I’ve ever seen in my life and it’s a combination of factors,” the sheriff said.

“No. 1, some snow drifts are 4 and 5 feet high. We have about an inch and a half of slush underneath all this snow. As soon as a vehicle drives over it, it instantly becomes ice.”

That was a persistent scenario across Raleigh County’s largely untreated secondary roads.

“Now, we have 5 and 6 inches of ice,” Tanner said.

“They have deep ruts where people have driven through them. When you get in a rut that’s 6 inches of ice around it, and most all of these are single lane roads now, you meet another car, you almost wreck trying to get over.”

All of Tanner’s deputies were assigned to four-wheel vehicles to conduct patrols and help the stranded. And most of those stuck didn’t need to be out anyway, the sheriff said.

“We have all kinds of people that are going out to get a pack of cigarettes, going out to see how bad the road is, going out to get another gallon of milk,” Tanner said.

“Honestly, everyone we have stopped and checked, which have been numerous ones, they’re either going to see what the roads are like or they need a pack of cigarettes. The fact is, most people could care less about whether it’s a state of emergency and they are out to see what the roads are like.”

Tanner said he understands that some workers can get in their bosses’ doghouse for skipping work on foul weather days.

“You have a lot of sympathy for that,” he said.

“It’s a very, very difficult situation. You would hope the companies would support the governor’s declaration of an emergency and close their businesses, which is supposed to be done.”

Folks out making simple purchases or sightseeing get no sympathy from the sheriff, but workers fearing a reprimand for staying home are another matter.

“When they say they have to work, you do have sympathy and compassion for them,” Tanner said.

“At the same time, nobody should be out in this unless it’s an emergency.”

Hazard-wise, Tanner said the roads are far worse than in the aftermath of the 1993 blizzard, since that storm left little ice underneath, and the snow was so huge that people couldn’t get out of driveways anyway.

Mark Wilson, the emergency management planner for the 911 center, said three shelters have been designated on a standby basis, in case protracted power outages paralyze parts of the county.

Power has been off temporarily, from a half hour to 45 minutes, in some parts,  but none has persisted long enough to warrant opening the three shelters, Wilson emphasized.

If worse comes to worst, the county is prepared to open emergency shelters at middle schools at Trap Hill, Independence and Shady Spring.

Wilson shared Tanner’s chagrin that sightseers are exacerbating the traffic problem by being out merely to take in the effects of the blizzard.

“We’re under a state of emergency, and I’m telling you, 80 percent of the people out there are lookers,” Wilson said.

“They’re doing things that really are not that important. It’s causing a big problem, traffic-wise. Just stay home. We’re in a state of emergency, so that’s the thing to do.”

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