Don't panic, but according to the National Weather Service our area is the epicenter of a wind-driven snow storm that is expected to dump 14-16 inches of heavy, wet snow on an already winter-fatigued people.

Meteorologist Greg Heavener said the snow started early this morning and is expected to fall through Friday evening. Winds are expected to reach 25-30 mph this afternoon, with gusts up to about 40 mph, with 50 mph gusts in the higher elevations.

"Winds are definitely going to be an issue today, especially this afternoon," he said. "The storm will draw in air from Canada, a cold, northwest wind. The double whammy of heavy, wet snow and high winds makes it likely that people will lose power.

As of 8:30 a.m., 10 PPL customers in Palmerton were out of service. Another 1,698 were out of service in Lehigh County.

"We are gearing up, and we will be prepared to respond and restore power to our customers if we need to," said PPL spokesman Kathy Frazier. "We have staffed our storm center, and all available resources will be assigned to storm response."

PPL keeps in touch with customers through it's storm outtage Web site at https://selfserv.pplelectric.com/EUSelfServ/Outage/OutageMap.aspx and through Twitter at twitter.com/pplstormteam.

PPL trims trees routinely to avoid branches falling on power lines.

Weather prediction being the uncertain science that it is, the forecast is a guesstimate, based on computer models. The National Weather Service is a government agency; AccuWeather, a commercial entity, is predicting a total of 9.9 inches of snow for the Lehighton area.

Last week's storm hit hardest in areas south of Carbon County, in Philadelphia and South Jersey. This one, Heavener said, is hitting North Jersey and the Poconos the hardest.

The state Department of Transportation is prepared, said spokesman Ron Young. PennDOT expects to have more than 17 plows out on state-owned roads in Carbon County, more than 42 in Schuylkill and more than 37 in Monroe County.

Snow-slicked Route 309 caused at least one accident as of early Thursday morning. A woman driving a sport utility vehicle lost control of her car and slid into guide rails on top of Blue Mountain in West Penn Township a little before 7 a.m. A passing motorist, Chris Noecker-Donmoyer of Tamaqua, stopped to help and called 911. Township Police Chief Brian Johnson arrived to handle the accident and the woman did not appear to be hurt.

State prepared

Gov. Ed Rendell said the state is ready for the storm.

"If conditions warrant, we will implement travel restrictions and road closures in the hardest hit areas," he said. "It's for the safety of motorists so they don't get stranded, the safety of emergency responders who would need to rescue stranded motorists, and so road crews can quickly and safely do their jobs and get highways reopened."

If road conditions deteriorate, the first step will be to ban trucks. If conditions continue to deteriorate, speed restrictions could also be implemented. The final action to ensure safety is to close the road. Closing specific roads does not equate to a mandatory statewide travel ban, but motorists are strongly encouraged to avoid all unnecessary travel during extreme weather, Rendell said.

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency increased staffing and operations at the State Emergency Operations Center this morning. The move brings staff from other state agencies, including the departments of Transportation and Military and Veteran Affairs and Pennsylvania State Police to the SEOC to monitor storm conditions and power outages across the state.

"Anyone who thinks they need to go somewhere during the storm should ask themselves if they truly need to travel and if they do, they absolutely should not leave home without emergency supplies," said Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency director Robert P. French. "Motorists should also let friends or family know what time they're leaving, when they anticipate arriving at their destination, and the route they plan to take."

If travel is a must, either call 511 or visit www.511pa.com before leaving for information on interstate road conditions, weather reports and incidents. The site also has views from more than 400 cameras at locations around the state. Pennsylvania Turnpike roadway and weather conditions are available at www.paturnpike.com or by calling 1-866-976-8747.

Up to 700 National Guard members were placed on active duty this morning for duties that could include assisting police and helping first responders transport patients during the storm. Area school districts were taking no chances: the decision to cancel classes for today was made last night.

Special care also needs to be taken with folks at the other end of the age range.

Be watchful

The state Secretary of Aging John Michael Hall urged people to check on older relatives and neighbors to make sure they are safe.

"Older citizens, many of whom live alone, can use help in getting their medications or going to a doctor's office. Some may need items from the grocery store or help with shoveling a path to their mail box," Hall said. "It's important to check on these neighbors and to provide assistance when possible."

While some seniors receive home-delivered meals that provide a frozen or shelf-stable backup meal for use when roads become impassable, many do not or may run out of those meals. A simple call or visit by a concerned neighbor could be a lifeline, he said. People should keep a flashlight, blankets, an adequate supply of prescription drugs and extra food and water available in preparation for a storm. Candles should be avoided because they are fire hazards.

French said a home emergency kit should allow a household to survive without outside assistance for at least three days and include basics such as: one gallon of water per person per day; nonperishable food; extra medication; battery-operated radio and flashlights; first aid kit; and any special needs items such as baby and pet supplies. An emergency kit for a car should contain many of the same items but in smaller quantities, as well as extra warm clothing, blankets and a car cell phone charger.

People needing help during the storm should call their local, city or municipal emergency management office in the "Blue Pages" section of the phone book or, if they have an emergency, call 911 immediately. Never call 911 to request or report road conditions. When calling 911 to report an emergency, it is critical for callers to stay on the line, even if for an extended series of rings, until the operator answers. Hang-ups due to frustration result in wasted staff time as the 911 center tries to reestablish contact.

The commonwealth's ReadyPA campaign encourages citizens to take three basic steps: Be Informed, Be Prepared, Be Involved. More detailed information, including downloadable checklists and emergency plan templates, is available online at www.ReadyPA.org or calling 1-888-9-READY-PA.