West Virginia under blizzard warning as Appalachia storm blows
CHEAT LAKE, W. Va. – Superstorm Sandy continued to dump snow on large swaths of West Virginia and western Maryland, spreading blizzard conditions over the mountains.
Officials closed Interstate 68 east of Morgantown to the Maryland border, leaving dozens of semis and vehicles parked on the shoulder Tuesday as crews work to reopen lanes. West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said in radio interviews that at least one lane in each direction should reopen soon, though he could not say when. He urged people not to travel unless necessary.
More than two feet of snow has fallen in some areas and snow will continue to fall throughout the day, officials said.
Among those delayed on I-68 was Earnest Poindexter, 28, a FEMA emergency response official, who was trying to get to Washington to help with rescue efforts.
“Once I get to headquarters, I'll get my orders,” Poindexter said. “I didn't expect this (delay) at all.”
Police said seven or eight jack-knifed tractor-trailers were among the barriers to reopening I-68.
Casey Jacobs and her boyfriend Paul Johnston were trying to get home to Alexandria, Va. when they hit the closure. They flew to Chicago last week to visit friends. Their return flight Monday was cancelled and airline officials said the earliest they would be able to fly out was Nov. 4, they said.
They rented a car instead, sleeping overnight in Zanesville, Ohio.
“Now we've been stuck here for two hours,” said Jacobs, 37, a fundraiser for American University in Washington. “I don't ever want to come back to West Virginia again.”
Their home in Alexandria has no power, and Johnston, a bartender, said the neighborhood where he works is flooded. They said they want to get home so they can see their dog, who's been staying with a friend.
“And we're only about three hours away,” Johnston, 41, said, shaking his head and looking at the state troopers blocking the roadway ahead.
Jason Cale spent the night working in a Mt. Morris coal mine, then tried to drive to his Bruceton Mills home, less than 15 miles away. When he came to the I-68 closure, he tried to take a detour on country roads.
“It was all clear in Pennsylvania, but as soon as I hit West Virginia, the snow was everywhere.” Cale said. “West Virginia is dropping the ball.”
The front end of his Plymouth got stuck in a drift, he said. When he tried to reverse out of it, his front bumper ripped off. Cale put it in his back seat, “because it wouldn't fit in the trunk.”
“This has been … troublesome,” he said. “I just want to get home.”
At least 236,000 customers were without power in West Virginia early Tuesday. In Elkins, a city of about 7,000 people, power went out across town before dawn and the only lights were from passing snow plows as heavy, wet flakes piled up to about 8 inches.
More than 30 other highways and roads were closed in West Virginia by snow, ice, high water, and downed trees and power lines, Department of Transportation spokeswoman Leslie Fitzwater said. Schools were closed in at least 39 counties.
“It's a mess out there and people should stay home if they can until our first responders can get out there, clear the roads and get to those who need the most assistance,” Fitzwater said.
Officials in West Virginia said a woman was killed Monday in a storm-related traffic accident. A spokeswoman for Tomblin said about 5 inches of snow had fallen in the area of Tucker County where the crash occurred, making road conditions treacherous.
Police rescued several stranded motorists on the interstate in West Virginia, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
A significant winter storm continued in northeast Tennessee, where snow was forecast for higher elevations through Wednesday morning.
At Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, park spokeswoman Dana Soehn reported 22 inches of snow at the highest elevations, with strong winds blowing drifts up to 4 feet deep.
Roads were closed throughout the park and a handful of hikers coming off sections of the Appalachian Trial on Tuesday morning reporting tangles of fallen trees and waist-deep drifts.
“We don't know exactly how many people are still up there, but we've not received any distress calls,” Soehn said. “It's that heavy, wet snow, so it is difficult to plow.”
Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press contributed to this report.