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Photo courtesy West Virginia Emergency Management Division Department of Homeland Security

W.Va. responders, communities, businesses rally during hazardous winter weather

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – After ice storms toppled trees and knocked out power for nearly 100,000 households and businesses, the W.Va. Emergency Management Division (WVEMD) and other state agencies continue their around-the-clock work to aid affected citizens.

Much of the impact from these ice storms occurred in several southwestern counties. Appalachian Power estimates that the resulting outages peaked at 97,000 customers in its West Virginia service area. Phone service was also disrupted, and numerous communities found themselves stranded because of roads blocked by downed trees and lines.

W.Va. Governor Jim Justice has pledged the state’s help for these areas as long as needed.

“I assure you that we will not give up,” said Justice. “As long as any West Virginian suffers because of this weather, state resources and personnel will continue to be there to help.”

The recent flooding has challenged ongoing recovery efforts, but state agencies continue to assist these communities.

“The people of these state agencies work tirelessly to help the people of West Virginia,” Justice continued. “I thank them, the local first responders, utility companies, and just the people in these communities for their teamwork and commitment to seeing the job through to the end.”

After previously ordering WVEMD to high alert, Gov. Jim Justice declared a State of Emergency for the region on Feb. 16. State agencies including the W.Va. EMD, State Police, National Guard, Division of Highways, Division of Natural Resources, and the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation were on the ground in those hardest-hit areas to clear roads, deliver supplies and perform house-to-house welfare checks.

Damage to remote areas made it necessary for state agency personnel to accompany workers from Appalachian Power and other utilities, to help clear roads and ensure areas were safe for repair crews.

“After a storm leaves so much damage, we do all we can to help our citizens recover,” said WVEMD Director G.E. McCabe. “But we couldn’t do it without community members willing to step up and help their neighbors, volunteer groups and our public partners working to restore services.”

Appalachian Power estimates that its crews replaced more than 800 broken poles and around 2,400 spans of wire between poles. As many as 3,500 utility workers from multiple states converged on West Virginia to accomplish these repairs, with 95 percent of the outages resolved by Feb. 26.

Wayne County: Neighbors, communities, and public partners

Wayne County was among the counties hardest hit by ice storms and resulting outages to power, phone service and even water.

Through the generosity of public partner W.Va. American Water, WVEMD coordinated the delivery of 7,000 gallons of drinking water to the Fort Gay area of Wayne County.

“West Virginia American Water is always willing to provide assistance and support to communities in need,” said WVAW President Robert Burton. “With our own operational impacts in the Wayne County area, we fully understood the needs of the Fort Gay community and were happy to provide emergency assistance. It’s our mission to provide clean, safe and reliable water service to West Virginians, and our thoughts remain with all those that continue to recover from winter storm impacts.”

Wayne County resident Mike Powers chronicled the devastation and resulting response on social media while he and his family endured 14 days without electricity.

“I was born and raised here. I’ve never seen anything hit Wayne County like this,” Powers said. “The magnitude of this is indescribable.”

A basic tenet of emergency management is that every response is local. Powers, a veteran photojournalist and sports videographer, and his community helped demonstrate that. While he had gas for heating and cooking and some had generators, others had neither. What’s more, the ice, snow and the massive volume of fallen trees and limbs made roads impassable throughout the region.

“Just to see everyone come together, checking on neighbors, clearing trees,” Powers said. “I’m really proud to see Wayne Countians come together, and the response of other people coming in to help.”

The W.Va. National Guard and State Police are among those that Powers has thanked on social media for their “truly heroic” efforts, alongside the Wayne County Office of Emergency Management, Sheriff’s Department and other first responders.

Echoing this perspective, Fort Gay Mayor Joetta Hatfield described the pride she felt, not only for her community, but in nearby communities like Louisa, Ky., that helped in the days after the ice storm.

“It was a very difficult time, but I couldn’t be prouder of my community” said Hatfield. “I could not be more pleased because we took care of each other.”

Among the state agencies that joined forces to help citizens in need:

W.Va. Emergency Management Division

Before the storm began and continuing with ongoing recovery efforts, WVEMD coordinated state emergency operations 24/7 while maintaining constant contact with county emergency management officials, coordinating all requests for assistance.

One of the greatest examples of teamwork occurred when Appalachian Power requested support for a mission into the southern mountains of Wayne County to access their right-of-way. The already rugged terrain proved difficult to access following the extensive ice storm damage.   

WVEMD’s Integrity and Infrastructure Protection section worked with Appalachian Power Circuit Coordinator Al Smith and his team to structure an access plan for the area. 

W.Va. Division of Highways District Engineer Scott Eplin and DOH were quick to provide the necessary heavy equipment and personnel to support the Appalachian Power crew. 

This mission was deemed critical to the restoration of power to areas affected by the outage.  The project was slated to take two to four days but was successfully completed earlier than expected.

Smith called to thank WVEMD’s Integrity and Infrastructure Protection Deputy Director William Minear personally, expressing his sincere thanks and appreciation for the equipment and other support the state provided.

He again emphasized the importance of their needs, and WVEMD’s quick ability to rally assets and support Appalachian Power’s request. 

“Eplin and DOH carried the largest portion of this effort, making sure the roadway, right-of-way, and debris were cleared to give the Appalachian Power teams access,” said Minear.

WVEMD thanks Appalachian Power for allowing it to support this critical mission. This coordination is one of many great examples of the teamwork provided by joint agencies during the ice storms.

W.Va. State Police

Over the course of four days, the W.Va. State Police dedicated 18 uniformed members to storm relief efforts. Shifts were scheduled so troopers were working during all hours.

State Police assisted with evacuating homes, cutting trees and removing debris from access roads, providing security for evacuated homes, conducting numerous welfare and safety checks, and aiding other state and federal agencies.

WVSP also provided the State Police Mobile Command vehicle to be utilized by other agencies for communication services.

W.Va. Division of Natural Resources

Division of Natural Resources Police assisted AEP crews and emergency responders in Cabell County. Officers cut trees to clear roadways, scouting those roads to ensure they were passable for utility trucks and equipment.

DNR Police also coordinated with Mason County 911 when they encountered blockages requiring clearing crews.

W.Va. Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation

The Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR) pitched in to help, including with inmates.

Correctional officers supervised several four-member crews from the Parkersburg, Charleston and Beckley work-release programs as they aided tree and debris removal in Cabell, Wayne, Mason and Putnam counties.

DOH provided any necessary training and reported hard work and good cooperation from these crews. They will continue to help with cleanup for the next few weeks.

State agencies joined county emergency management responders on the front lines:

Mason County Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management

“We were extremely grateful to see our own citizens checking on their family, neighbors and friends automatically,” said Matthew Gregg, director of the Mason County Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “We were fortunate to see such a great turnout when our call for assistance went out to other fire departments in West Virginia for saw teams and more need for cleanup.”

The community supported many responders by providing food, drink and other help.

Wayne County Office of Emergency Management

With areas of the county still inaccessible, the work is far from done for the Wayne County Office of Emergency Management. First responders from across the county continue to help residents in their areas, reporting back to WCOEM, who then coordinate resources for those in need.

“The hits just keep on coming,” said Director B.J. Willis. “The whole county has suffered. We haven’t recovered from the February ice storms, and now we have flooding.”

First responders and personnel from state agencies continue to deliver resources and assist in door-to-door welfare checks throughout the county.

A bit of good news, said Willis, is that waters are receding, and he hopes to get into the flooded areas today. 

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