By JOHN RABY and VICKI SMITH
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency in West Virginia on Monday ahead of a storm packing high winds and heavy rain and threatening to bring flooding and dump as much as 3 feet of snow on the state’s highest ridge tops.
Forecasters expanded a blizzard warning Monday to at least 14 counties. High wind warnings and flood watches also were posted, mostly in northern and eastern sections of the state. Eastern parts of the state can expect to get up to 6 inches of rain.
Forecasters upgraded an earlier prediction that had said up to 2 feet of snow was possible on ridge tops, where there are mainly ski resorts or sparsely populated areas.
“We’re not taking it lightly,” said Marlinton Volunteer Fire Department Capt. Gene Tracy. “We’re preparing for the worst — power outages — and getting ready to cut trees if they block the roads.”
Tomblin on Monday opened a special communications center at the state Capitol. He advised residents to be ready for power outages and to stay off roads once high winds hit.
“We’re looking at a three-punch storm,” Tomblin said. “People looking out their windows may just see some clouds and a little drizzle. I’m asking them to make sure they have enough water, batteries, food, whatever they think they need for the next two days.”
No significant outages were reported Monday. Tracy said Pocahontas County officials are spreading the word that “we ought to keep our heads up and be ready to open shelters.”
Highway crews embarked on what could be a long week of snow removal, working along U.S. 219 in Pocahontas and Randolph counties and Interstate 64 east of Beckley on Monday.
Weather service meteorologist Tim Axford said the overwhelming majority of residents live in lower elevations where significantly lesser amounts of snow are expected. He said the amount of land above 3,000 feet — where the highest amount of snow was expected to fall — is minuscule. It does exist in seven counties but there are no towns of significant size involved.
Elkins, in Randolph County, is in a valley at 2,000 feet but is surrounded by significant mountain peaks to the east.
“People that live in Elkins may see 3 to 6 inches” of snow, Axford said, “but people who live just outside could see quite a bit more. It’s highly elevation dependent.”
Marlinton is about a half-hour drive from Snowshoe Mountain and Mayor Joe Smith said his town at about 2,500-feet elevation had yet to see a snowflake as of Monday afternoon. He doesn’t expect the town will get anywhere near the same amount of snow as Snowshoe, but even if it does, “you just live with it and handle it,” Smith said. “We’re prepared. We’ve got our plows and our salt trucks ready.”
In Preston County, one of 14 counties under a blizzard warning, rain and fog hugged Caddell Mountain at midday. People at the Shop N Save supermarket in Terra Alta picked up bread, milk and cat food, but all laughed off the dire predictions they saw on a cable television channel where forecasters didn’t differentiate in elevations.
Snowshoe’s highest peak in Pocahontas County is more than 4,800 feet, while Terra Alta sits at an elevation of about 2,500 feet. Morgantown, about 40 miles northwest of Terra Alta, sits below 1,000 feet.
“I never have been worried. ... The only guy that can keep a job is the weather man,” said Homer Bennett, who has lived in Terra Alta a little less than three years. “He can tell a lie, get paid and still have a job.”
Judy Sines, who was restocking shelves as a few last-minute shoppers trickled in and out, has lived on the mountaintop for more than 30 years. She said big snows are nothing new to the area.
“All we can do is get prepared and hope for the best,” she said. “People around here ... you know what it’s like and you know how to get through it. You do the best you can do, and it is what it is.”
There was a big snowstorm a few days before Halloween last year, but Deane Foy is so used to storms, she can’t even remember how much fell.
“I heard Saturday night we were getting 5 feet and I just laughed,” Foy said. “We have gotten 5 feet before. But they’re saying this is the blizzard of all blizzards, we’ve never seen a blizzard like this before.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “It could be, maybe. And it could pass.”
Doug Rumer threw two loaves of bread in a cart before heading the 10 miles home to Aurora. That was about the extent of his preparations.
“I’ve got a generator. Most people up here do,” he said. “It’s no worries. We’re used to it. ... We just sit at home and play cards.”
The most recorded snowfall from a single storm in West Virginia was 57 inches in Pickens in post-Thanksgiving 1950, the weather service said.