MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Black Hawk helicopters were sent up over mountainous rural areas of West Virginia on Friday to get a better sense of how many people remain cut off from the outside world by fallen trees, downed power lines and heavy snow from Superstorm Sandy.
About 20 percent of Barbour and Randolph counties in the north-central part of the state remained cut off, and officials said about 70 percent of the homes and businesses in those counties were still without power. They worried about elderly and ill people who have been isolated since Monday.
State officials have declared six deaths linked to the storm, including one in Barbour County.
Ryan Auvil shovels snow in the driveway of his house Thursday to get the family van out after the recent storm left 3 feet of snow in Aurora, W.Va., with more snow in the forecast. Related stories/6.
The unofficial toll, however, is likely higher. Barbour County Sheriff John Hawkins said several of his residents have died from pre-existing illnesses or natural causes such as heart attacks while shoveling snow.
"Could it be from the stress of the storm?" Hawkins said. "It could be."
Randolph County emergency management director Jim Wise said no deaths in his county have yet been linked to the storm, but he was worried that would change as firefighters, National Guard teams and others push into remote areas.
"It's always a concern with the ones who are isolated," he said. "It's a very good likelihood ... but we just don't know until we can get to them."
Wise said he's had calls from across the country requesting welfare checks on friends and family, and first responders have gotten to every one of them. That work should become easier as the county and the state Division of Highways continue opening secondary roads, he said.
The West Virginia National Guard has activated 540 members across the state, including 18 liaison teams to emergency operations centers and 36 community-assessment teams, said Sgt. Anna-Marie Ward. Others are working on emergency power supplies, running heavy equipment, and dismantling and removing collapsed structures.
The 130th Airlift Wing in Charleston and the 167th Airlift Wing in Martinsburg are also receiving supplies from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and serving as staging centers.
Members of an Army and Air National Guard special operations unit flew a Black Hawk to remote mountaintop area near the tiny Preston County town of Cuzzart to aid snowbound residents there. One team checked the health of a 2-month-old boy and his mother and delivered four days' worth of food, water and baby formula.
"They were running out of baby formula. They had less than a can left," said Major Chris Brown.