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Area braces for the worst

Published October 29. 2012 05:05PM

Hurricane Sandy is churning up the east coast, aiming high winds and at least four inches of heavy rain at our area. The looming hybrid storm has closed schools and emptied stores of bottled water, staple foods and generators.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expects tropical storm conditions to hit the Carbon County area today, bringing up to an inch of rain and 35-45 mph winds, with gusts up to 55 mph. The winds will increase tonight to 45-55 mph, with gusts of up to 70 mph., along with another one to two inches of rain.

Tomorrow, expect temperatures to drop to 42 degrees by 5 p.m., the winds to calm down to 19-24 mph, and another one-half to three-quarters of an inch of rain.

Based on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers models, 3.9 million Pennsylvanians about 25 percent of the state's population live in the path of the hybrid storm. Hurricane Sandy is expected to slam the southeastern part of the state the hardest.

"This is a late season hurricane (the peak season is August/September; the full season is June - November) interacting with a trough over the U.S. The trough is pulling this storm left over the Northeast, which is unusual. Usually storms will come up the coast and go east out to sea, so this storm in unique," said climatologist Jessica Rennells of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science (EAS) Northeast Regional Climate Center.

The storm has already caused the deaths of 60 people and caused untold millions of dollars in damage.

Gov. Tom Corbett on Friday declared a state of emergency, and asked President Obama for federal aid. He also mobilized 1,600 National Guard troops to help get supplies and equipment to affected areas.

Authorities ask people to use common sense and avoid commonly flooded areas. Coaldale Police Chief Timothy Delaney said the "pool road" at the extreme end of East Phillips Street, by the tennis courts, will be closed later today.

"If people try to drive through and get stuck, we will tow the vehicles and they will be cited," he said.

Lehighton on Sunday declared a state of emergency, asking people to report any storm damage and to keep storm drains in their area clear of leaves and debris.

All local schools are closed today. Panther Valley Superintendent Rosemary Porembo said officials will decide later today whether schools will remain closed on Tuesday. Whether classes will resume later in the week depends on power supplies, flooding and wind conditions, she said.

Carbon County Emergency Management Coordinator Mark Nalesnik is keeping a close eye on typical problem areas, including Route 895 in East Penn Township and the Aquashicola area in Palmerton.

Emergency management coordinators in Carbon and Schuylkill counties are on the alert.

Nalesnik said that his office is closely monitoring the storm.

"As this thing heats up, we'll adapt and bring in more resources and personnel," he said.

Preparations for emergency shelters are under way. Shelters include fire halls with backup generators, kitchens and shower facilities; recreation centers, schools and church halls. In Tamaqua, the Salvation Army at 105 East Broad St. will be open for those seeking a place to go eat and socialize. However, it is not a shelter, and is not equipped to house people overnight. The Tamaqua High School will be opened as a shelter if the need arises.

But while there may be shelter spaces, there is also a need for volunteers to operate them.

Nalesnik asks that Carbon County Emergency Response Team members contact him at (570) 325-5083; (570) 325-5084, or (570) 325-5085 to be scheduled.

He gives firefighters a lot of credit.

"The heavy rain brings flooded basements, and that really stresses their resources. And it's costly fuel and fire apparatus. But they go do it. We always turn to our volunteer firefighters when anything happens in the community. I don't think they get enough credit or recognition for that," Nalesnik said.

He also asks that people call 911 only for emergencies, not for general information. The non-emergency number is (800) 452-1813.

"Over the next day or so, we'll get call after call from people asking if they can go to work. It is the municipalities that make the decisions on whether to close roads. Gov. Corbett's disaster declaration does not prohibit driving," he said.

Schuylkill County's Emergency Management Coordinator John Matz said that "from last week, we've been talking to municipalities' emergency services. Some municipalities have already issued declarations of emergency, which enables them to do certain things like bypass the bidding process if needed."

Matz said most municipalities have been proactive, clearing storm drains and culverts to minimize local flooding on roadways, and making sure generators and other equipment are ready to roll.

Matz believes the high winds will present more of a hazard than the heavy rain.

"We have talked to municipalities, and suggested they look ahead and do some preplanning for local shelters. We've been in touch with the Red Cross, and Schuylkill Haven High School is on standby for a regional shelter," he said. "I think we are well positioned across the county. The municipalities have done a great job of preparing."

Lansford Mayor Ron Hood had some advice for residents.

"As the area braces for a major storm the next few days, I want to remind all residents of Lansford that if you have a true emergency call 911. For all other problems, like water in your basement and trees down, please call the non-emergency number, which is 1-800-452-1813. If you've had water in your basement in the past, please take all items that can block our pumps out of the basement. If you need the fire company for pump details, we will take care of all of them; they will be checked by an officer and we will do them in order of priority, not the order they are received. Thank you in advance for your understanding. We will get through this together," he said.

Hospitals are also ready.

"We started preparations on Friday with things such as linen conservation, everyone reviews our Emergency Operations Plan as each department has specific issues they need to check, including critical equipment," said Blue Mountain Health System spokeswoman Lisa Johnson.

"We reminded them to bring a 'go' bag in case they have to remain at the hospital, and bottled water reserves. These are things we check and prepare for every potential storm, rain or snow."

Locally, grocery stores were emptied this weekend of bottled water and the usual French toast ingredients eggs, milk and bread. Frank Kuhn, owner of the Mallard Market in Lehighton, said early Monday that he's seeing runs on "the usual stuff - milk bread eggs. The deli is very busy, and bananas are selling great. People are looking for things that last, that don't need any kind of preparation."

Of course, bottled water and ice are selling like the proverbial hotcakes. Mallard Market is a PPL support store, where PPL customers who are out of power can get water and ice each day.

PPL is alerting customers that power may be out for a week or longer. About 1,500 outside contractors are arriving in the area to respond to storm damage, tripling PPL Electric Utilities' normal number of field crews, according to the company website.

As of 8:30 a.m. Monday, 12 PPL customers were out of power in the Pottsville area, and 67 in Lehigh County, most in Lower Milford Township.

Generators were sold out at most hardware stores.

"We are currently sold out," said Kerry Collins, manager of the Lowe's store in Lehighton. "We've received one emergency shipment so far. We have certainly requested them. It's a matter of whether the manufacturers have them available."

Also, experts advise that people unplug their electronics if the power goes out, so the surge when the power returns doesn't damage them.

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