VICKI SMITH,Associated Press
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Life after Superstorm Sandy was slowly returning to normal across West Virginia's hardest-hit counties Wednesday, but officials in some places said a full recovery will take months.
About 21,000 West Virginia homes and businesses remained without power as utility crews continued restoring service knocked out by the storm. Ohio-based FirstEnergy said it expects to return electricity to most customers by late Friday and the remainder by the end of the weekend.
Its website showed Preston County with nearly 6,000 customers still in the dark Wednesday morning, and Randolph County a close second with more than 4,000 outages. The utility said it had about 3,000 outages in Upshur and about 2,000 in Barbour, but fewer than 2,000 apiece in Webster and Tucker counties.
Appalachian Power's website showed only 128 people without power, all in Raleigh County.
Schools remained closed in Preston and Webster counties, but Preston emergency management director Duane Hamilton said authorities are working with the school board in hopes of getting buses back on the road next week. Crews remained out across the region, cutting back toppled and snapped-off trees and hauling them away from the roadsides to make the lanes more passable,
Though nearly every road in the county was open, Hamilton said, "the total recovery from this is going to take months."
The extent of the damage depended mainly on elevation, with the highest parts of the county taking the hardest hits.
"There was damage from one end of the county to the other," he said.
But calls for assistance and emergency food and water deliveries have trickled off, and a dozen volunteers from the Tennessee-based group Volunteers Active in Disasters were out shoveling snow from roofs and removing trees from individual homes while National Guard and other teams worked on public property.
Officials are still delivering some 2,000 meals a day, Hamilton said, or serving them at Red Cross feeding stations in eight communities, including Terra Alta, Aurora, Rowlesburg and Fellowsville.
In Barbour County, Commission President Phil Hart said only about 20 percent of residents are still without power. Most water service had been restored, but authorities were delivering supplies and handing out bottles at staging areas for those who rely on wells.
The shelters have no overnight occupants anymore, but Hart said they're still serving a few hundred hot meals a day — fewer as the power comes back.
Last week, Hart said, National Guard crews in Black Hawk helicopters were flying over cut-off parts of the county to check on people still stranded by deep snow, and downed trees and power lines. In places where they saw no vehicles, the teams hovered until someone came outside.
When they failed to rouse the couple at one isolated home, Hart said, the soldier rappelled down. He found the pair well supplied with food and water, and in no danger.
"But they did have one request," Hart said. "They wanted him to take their absentee ballots to the post office for them so they could vote." The guardsman did.
"You hear a lot of sad stories," Hart said, "but it's nice to hear a good one, too."
Hart said his main concern now is the economic impact on small businesses and the county's volunteer first responders.
"People aren't going to have the money to support them to help them get back on their feet," he said.
Some businesses had insurance to cover part of their losses, but not all.
"And their employees, if they're not working they have no money coming in," Hart said. "Everybody's in the same situation."