MASON COUNTY — Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin made a stop in Mason County on Friday to receive an update from local officials about storm damage and to offer a report of his own on resources available from the state.
Tomblin was debriefed on the situation at the Mason County 9-1-1 Center which is also the home of the Mason County Emergency Operations Center - ground zero for county operations dealing with the storm’s aftermath.
Chuck Blake, who is the director of Mason County Emergency Management, Mason County EMS and Mason County 9-1-1, gave the governor a rundown of how the storm affected Mason County. Blake explained the storm was absolutely a “catastrophic event for us” due to the widespread outages, the excessive heat and trying to get communications from the emergency operations center out to a public which, more often than not, had no way of hearing the latest news.
Looking at the storm by the numbers, Blake told Tomblin his agency had given out 69,000 bottles of water with another semi truckload on the way. There have also been 4,000 bags of ice given away with a few hundred bags left at Point Pleasant Primary School (though they were going fast) and 3,800 ready to eat meals had been given out to residents.
Blake told Tomblin Mason County Schools had been invaluable during the outage by providing Point Pleasant Junior/Senior High School as an emergency shelter and by paying cooks, janitors and maintenance staff to provide for those at the shelter. Blake said the county school administration basically gave the order to empty freezers and prepare as many meals as needed at no cost to the county. The shelter closed on July 4 due to decreased lack of need. Blake also reported his agency worked with the state to provide three generators to the Mason County Public Service District to assist with keeping local water supplies operational.
Blake said obviously, at this point, the excessive heat and lack of electricity in several pockets around the county were the biggest issues right now.
Tomblin said all critical infrastructure in the state, such as hospitals, nursing homes and public water systems, were now operational and that fortunately, there had been no fatalities reported. He said one of the major issues right now was finding ice for those who need it and said the state had been working with vendors from as far away as Louisiana to get ice shipped in. He also said the state was working with school districts who have ice machines to help fill the need.
“If there’s any place in the country to get ice, we will get it,” Tomblin said.
Tomblin also remarked West Virginia had never been through this type of weather event where 53 of the 55 counties were affected. For example, during flooding events, most counties can relay on aid from others not affected - not so during this storm because everyone was struggling. Despite this, Tomblin said one thing he took away from this experience was the state really came together and neighbors were taking in neighbors.
Tomblin said at some point in the future, he wants to get all emergency management directors together to look at what went right and what went wrong during this event to develop a response plan to implement statewide. Echoing Blake’s sentiments, Tomblin said being unable to get out emergency communications, particularly in smaller cities and rural areas, was a huge issue. Tomblin said right now 600 U.S. Army National Guardsmen are going door to door to do wellness checks across the state. Blake added the Mason County Emergency Operations Center would develop their own presence on Facebook and Twitter to get information out to people.
Tomblin also said another issue which the storm brought to light is making sure local emergency managers have a list of what is needed in these events - for example, what types of generators are needed for surrounding critical infrastructure. Having this information beforehand will expedite the process of providing these commodities to communities if the need should ever arise again.
Also during the conversation, Blake said he’d had a call from the American Red Cross about wanting to know damage assessments to help the area but explained he needed actual people from the American Red Cross on the ground to help find this information out first. He also said the county could use some state aid to help with unforeseen expenses, such as the extra $2,000 in diesel fuel it cost to power the generator to the Mason County 9-1-1 center during the outage.
West Virginia Homeland Security Chief Jimmy Gianato, who was also traveling with the governor Friday, said the state is working on getting public assistance for those public entities affected by the storm. Gianato also stated his agency was working on getting public assistance for individuals affected but this process would take longer due the amount and type of of information which needed gathered. Right now, West Virginia has been granted an Emergency Disaster Declaration from the federal government which means the Federal Emergency Management Agency can respond with commodities like generators, food, water. A Major Disaster Declaration must be requested and approved to receive federal assistance for private individuals who sustained losses.
Tomblin wrapped up his visit by thanking everyone at the center for their work and as far as when the lights would come on for all of West Virginia, Tomblin said he could only tell everyone what Appalachian Electric Power had told him - “Sunday.”
Also at the meeting were Mason County Commissioners Miles Epling and Bob Baird along with County Administrator John Gerlach. Members of the Mason County Detachment of the West Virginia State Police provided security for Tomblin.
For those in need of information about local post-storm resources available to them, call the Mason County Emergency Operations Center at 304-675-8686.