By John Raby and Vicki Smith
Many West Virginians who usually take the state’s fickle weather in stride were more on edge as superstorm Sandy knocked out power to thousands on Tuesday, with a June derecho that left some in the dark for up to two weeks still fresh in their minds.
The storm that hit late Monday and into Tuesday dumped up to 19 inches of snow in West Virginia, cutting electricity to about 271,000 customers and closing dozens of roads. One storm-related death was reported.
Power company officials had no immediate estimate on when service would be restored.
That worried some people who had to endure up to two weeks of power outages after a June 29 windstorm left more than 680,000 state customers without electricity.
Richard Dunn of Sissonville was without power for 11 days this summer. He hoped it wouldn’t take that long this time around.
“Just get your generator, keep your refrigerator running and get your kerosene to have some heat,” he said. “Go home and sit in the dark.”
It’s not fun, he said. “But welcome to West Virginia.”
Appalachian Power reported about 154,000 customers without power Tuesday afternoon in 20 counties in southern West Virginia.
FirstEnergy subsidiaries Mon Power and Potomac Edison had 117,000 customers without power in 39 counties.
Mon Power spokesman Mark Nitowski said helicopters used to survey hilly terrain have been grounded by high winds and snow, hampering assessment efforts.
“We continue to attack it the best we can and work toward getting everybody back,” Nitowski said.
Kanawha County, the state’s most populous county, also was the state’s hardest hit in terms of the number of outages. Appalachian Power said 41 percent, or 42,000, of its customers in the county were without service Tuesday afternoon.
Dunn, 17, got the day off from high school and drove 20 minutes to Cross Lanes with his parents to find a gas station that had electricity so he could fill up a kerosene can.
“It’s the only place with power,” Dunn said. “All of Sissonville’s out, as much as we’ve seen anyway.”
Ahead of Dunn in the kerosene line was Harmony Plate, 36, of Nitro, who said her home lost power for nearly two weeks during the derecho when a transformer blew in town.
“Last time we went without electricity and we got a whole bunch of stuff to make sure we didn’t go without again,” Plate said. “The only thing we can’t do is heat the water up.”
The gas station lost electricity earlier in the day before it was restored, and Plate was confident that would be the case at her home.
An employee at a drug store, Plate said her three children were staying with relatives. Her husband is a security guard at Appalachian Power’s John Amos power plant.
She didn’t hold the outages again him.
“It’s not his fault,” she said.
In South Charleston, Bob Bayless and Randy Pennington were on lunch break at a fast-food restaurant from their jobs at a chemical plant. Both lost electricity at their Alum Creek homes when a power line came down on trees and caught fire. Both men’s homes also lost power for two weeks over the summer.
Pennington recently filled his refrigerator with $600 in food from a wholesaler. Bayless stocked his freezer with $700 worth of beef on Friday. Without having generators to rely on, the clock was ticking as far as the food’s safety.
“If we go for 28-30 hours, as long as they get power back on, I don’t have to worry about that $700 going out the window,” Bayless said. “It is what it is. If you’re looking to find somebody who’s torn up, you’re talking to the wrong person. Whatever life throws us, I take it stride for stride. We could be up in New York, see.”
New York City took a huge hit from Sandy.
Appalachian Power spokesman Phil Moye said it’s too early to determine when power will be restored because the snow was still falling Tuesday afternoon, outage numbers keep going up and more trees could come down. Workers whose job is to assess damage were having trouble traveling in the heavily rural state.
The biggest difference between the summer storm and this one was the timing. The derecho gave little warning. This time, Appalachian Power had 400 crews from as far away as Texas ready to assist because the utility had days to prepare for superstorm Sandy.
“I think the highways department and the state and county folks are going a good job with the roads,” Moye said. “It’s just a matter of snow continues to fall and the roads are in bad shape. That’s the difference with the summer storm — getting out there to assess damage.”
When the power went out at Mike Castillo’s house in the Randolph County community of Bowden, he took his wife and two young children to stay with relatives in Elkins. Now that home has no lights or heat.
The Castillos went without power for nearly five days after the June derecho, and he was worried by a report that it could be seven days or more this time.
“I don’t think anybody’s prepared to ride it out that long,” he said.
Castillo’s family is together but he worries about elderly people who may be isolated.
“A lot of them are going to be stuck in their houses with no heat, and if they have no family, who’s going to go check on them?” He said. “All we can do is pray this stuff blows by sooner than they expect.”