The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

October 29, 2012

Turnpike manager says motorist should avoid toll road until storm passes

By Mannix Porterfield

— Throw an extra log on the fire, stay in touch with weather updates, and, if possible, forget about cruising up and down the West Virginia Turnpike until Hurricane Sandy and her attendant blizzard get out of town.

Buttressed by extra trucks and a vast supply of salt, Turnpike Manager Greg Barr says his crews are prepared for the worst.

If a true blizzard arrives, however, packing a mammoth snowstorm with it, Barr is advising routine commuters to avoid getting on the 88-mile toll highway until the trouble is cleared up.

“People ought to just stay home and hunker down a little bit until the worst of this blizzard moves out of here,” Barr said Monday.

Weather officials imposed a blizzard warning from noon Monday until 4 p.m. Thursday.

“You’ve got to take it as it comes,” Barr said.

“I would constantly check radio and television and social media and on-line news to keep tabs on this stuff. Don’t travel unless it’s an absolute emergency because you just don’t want to be out in the middle of those road conditions. Imagine getting stranded and stuck in 50 mile an hour winds. The wind chill would probably be well below freezing. I don’t know if you could get out of your car. And snow could drift and cover up cars, if it got that bad.”

If heavy snow materializes and high winds begin to churn, Barr expects the worst places to be around Winterplace, Camp Creek Mountain and Ghent.

“If the winds are as high as they’re predicting, 50 to 60 miles per hour, we can plow the road, have it clear, and then five minutes later, those types of wind gusts could blow snow back over the road again,” Barr said.

“But I’m hearing it’s going to be a wet snow, so that might make the wind effect a little less of a problem. With those high winds, it could still get pretty bad.”

In fact, Barr said the brunt of the predicted storm will likely impact from Milepost 60, at Mossy, southward, embracing the tip of Fayette County, and Raleigh and Mercer counties, given the higher elevations.

“In the north end around Charleston, we’re hopeful that surface will stay a little bit warmer and the storm won’t hit quite as hard at lower elevations,” the Turnpike manager said.

Blessed with a mild winter only months ago, salt supplies are abundant.

Overall, the Turnpike has been steeling itself for a major storm, and that means every piece of available equipment has been mobilized, Barr said.

That means a fleet of 21 tandem snowplows, or seven assigned to each section of the Princeton-to-Charleston toll road, and the inventory includes three additional tandems from the heavy equipment division with plows mounted, Barr said.

Additionally, the Turnpike has three, two-ton trucks and a like number of ton-and-a-half vehicles, all with plows fixed. Smaller plows will be used to keep toll lanes open, parking lots cleared, shoulders and rest areas free of snow.

If needed, Barr said the Turnpike would use a large motor grader, likewise with a plow in the front.

Facility shops personnel are ready to swing into duty, manning extra trucks to serve, in essence, as additional courtesy patrol folks to come to the aid of anyone who either breaks down or becomes mired in the slushy snow.

Those workers will be armed with water and gasoline, along with tow straps to pull anyone out of harm’s way, either because of heavy snow, or a tree bowled over by high winds, Barr explained.

Two electricians will be on call in 12-hour shifts to keep generators working. In the June 29 derecho, the only place to buy gasoline in this region was on the Turnpike, since a massive power failure silenced the pumps.

“We’ll have backup generators,” Barr said.

“Right now, we’ve topped them off with fuel. That’s another reason our facilities people will be out. If the generators do kick on, you have to constantly keep them fueled. If you’re having to run them 12 hours, or 24 hours, you’re going to have to refuel the diesel tanks. So, we’ll be ready in that regard, too.”

A senior maintenance manager will be on duty at all time, Barr said, to oversee any needed response.

Early morning commuters on the Turnpike were greeted by blizzard warnings on the highway’s special signs. In fact, the toll road uses 19 such message boards, and the Division of Highways operates its own on roads in the southern region near the Turnpike.

Should a massive dumping of snow, say two feet, occur in the next day or so, there would be no choice but to close the road, Barr said.

“We don’t rule anything out of the question, when they’re talking about two feet of snow,” he said.

“We just hope this is not some historic dumping on to the Turnpike.”

Such a storm is hardly ancient history, however. Hundreds of motorists were stranded in December 2009 when a major snow blitzed the southern counties, prompting a massive plan by the Turnpike to deal with such crises.

“The bad thing about that, there wasn’t much of a pre-warning as we are getting with this storm,” Barr said.

“The other thing was, that one was a week before Christmas. Everybody was on the road. They were going to visit relatives and were ill-prepared for a major snowstorm. People were in flip-flops and shorts. It was awful.”

Ironically, this storm likewise is falling near a national observance — Halloween — prompting some wags to term it “Frankenstorm.” And Barr is wondering if any travelers braving the storm would be enroute to a Halloween festival or whatever.

“There might be some people in costumes,” Barr suggested.

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