Emergency officials in Luzerne County and across Pennsylvania joined the rest of the East Coast Friday in preparing for severe weather from Hurricane Sandy that could bring flooding, power outages and storm damage to much of the East Coast over the next few days.
Gov. Tom Corbett declared a statewide disaster emergency to enable state, county and municipal governments to respond effectively to Sandy's impact. The governors of Virginia, Maryland and New York did the same.
With the storm projected to hit the Atlantic coast early Tuesday, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned it could merge with two other systems to become a hybrid, monster storm. The storm is expected to bring heavy rain to much of the state, and even snow in some areas of southwestern Pennsylvania and in higher elevations.
An AccuWeather meteorologist called the Halloween nor'easter a meteorological bomb.
Alex Sosnowski, a senior meteorologist for AccuWeather, said conditions will deteriorate in Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton and Williamsport beginning Sunday night. He predicted winds could reach speeds of 60 to 80 miles per hour across eastern Pennsylvania, creating widespread potential for downed trees, with the worst weather coming Monday and Tuesday.
Luzerne County Emergency Management Coordinator Stephen Bekanich said the agency has been providing weather briefings to municipalities, and staff will continue monitoring the forecast over the weekend.
He expects he will decide on Monday morning when to staff the county Emergency Operations Center, but that could change depending on the storm track. Once the EOC is staffed, it will remain that way through the end of the storm event, Bekanich said.
Bekanich said Corbett's emergency declaration will allow municipal, county and state officials to circumvent the normal bidding and quote-seeking requirements throughout the duration of the emergency so that supplies such as sandbags and stone can be purchased and equipment rented immediately, if needed.
Many local residents, likewise, are preparing to be hard hit by the Category 1 hurricane.
The Home Depot store in Wilkes-Barre Township, like other hardware retailers throughout the region, was hit with a run on generators Thursday evening and Friday morning as homeowners fearing a repeat of the long power outages that followed Tropical Storm Irene last year braced for a strike from Hurricane Sandy.
More than 296,000 PPL Electric Utilities customers, including 14,000 in Luzerne County, and 22,000 UGI Utilities customers lost power after the storm that toppled trees and downed power lines in late August 2011.
UGI struggled to bring many of those customers back online after Irene, leaving more than 2,400 customers without power five days after the storm and about 100 offline for more than a week.
Larry Stirewalt, owner of Main Hardware in Wilkes-Barre, said those calling around Friday morning likely had last year's storms fresh in their minds.
A lot of people don't want to go through that again, and if they didn't take the action right after that they're panicking now, Stirewalt said.
Stirewalt doesn't stock many generators because they only sell in large numbers when a major storm looms, but he did sell the three or four he had Thursday and said the True Value warehouse in Allentown that supplies his store was out of stock.
He noted the store had plenty of basement water pumps, flashlights, batteries and other supplies customers might need after a storm, as well as shovels in case the storm brings the snowfall that was initially forecast.
Stores with larger stocks of generators also ran out early Friday.
Tom Stephenson, manager at Tractor Supply Co. in Hanover Township, said about 15 customers were waiting outside when the store opened at 8 a.m. Friday, and the store received around 200 phone calls inquiring about generators before noon.
Tractor Supply sold the roughly 20 generators it had on hand within 30 minutes. The store was trying to get additional generators shipped for Monday or Tuesday, but Stephenson wasn't sure when they would arrive.
The situation was similar at other stores. Lowe's in Wilkes-Barre Township sold the few generators it had on hand by 6:30 a.m. Friday and Home Depot sold its 40 generators early Friday.
Both said they were awaiting emergency shipments of generators. Lowe's said it expected them to arrive sometime today while Home Depot said a truck could arrive this weekend or early next week.
Of course, both the lucky few who found a generator and those still searching are probably hoping they won't need one.
UGI Utilities spokesman Joseph Swope said the company has taken measures to avoid repeating last year's prolonged outages.
The utility has secured contractors and workers from Wisconsin to assist in power restoration, which will double its usual field workforce to 150, Swope said.
UGI has also developed a new emergency outage plan to provide more timely information regarding restoration, and in the spring ran an emergency drill to test its new operations and communications procedures.
But Swope also noted that if the storm is as severe as predicted, we are looking at possible prolonged outages, so we encourage our customers to prepare as well.
PPL Electric Utilities said it would begin moving crews from sister utilities in Kentucky as soon as Sunday night and that contractors who normally assist PPL crews with storm restoration have been notified to remain in the area so they can be called on, if necessary.
In addition to downing trees and power lines, the storm has potential to inundate creeks with rapid rainfall, making flash floods a concern in some areas, according to the National Hurricane Center and accuweather.com.
The National Hurricane Center said the storm could drop 3 inches of rain by Wednesday morning, with most of the rainfall coming Monday and Tuesday, and more rain possible south of the area.
Kevin Hlywiak, a senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service Middle Atlantic River Forecast Center, said flash flooding in smaller streams is likely if 3 inches of rain falls in a short time, but that the Susquehanna River is unlikely to pose a flooding threat in the region.
The river could exceed its natural flood stage of 22 feet but is unlikely to reach 27 feet, where first areas of the Wyoming Valley not protected by levees will begin to flood.
That would be a low probability event, Hlywiak said. Not nonexistent, but more than 3 inches of rain would have to fall.
The Susquehanna River level was about 3.5 feet Friday.
The storm also could make travel dangerous.
It's simple. If you don't have to drive during the storm – don't, said Jenny M. Robinson, manager of Public and Government Affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic.
If you must drive, take caution as conditions can become treacherous quickly. Nearly half of the people who die in flash floods are in automobiles because they vastly underestimate water's power or depth, or don't act quickly enough to escape, Robinson said.
All the major airlines are giving travelers a way out if they want to scrap their plans due to Hurricane Sandy. They are offering waivers to customers who wish to reschedule their flights without incurring the typical fee of up to $150.
The offers cover passengers flying in or out of just about any airport from Latin America to New Hampshire. Most waivers for travel in the Northeast are only valid Monday through Wednesday.
The airlines have canceled only a handful of flights so far, nearly all of them in and out of Florida and the Caribbean.
Corbett issued the disaster proclamation based on the recommendation of Glenn Cannon, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, and forecasts from the National Weather Service.
Cannon urged Pennsylvanians to prepare for strong winds, heavy rain and snow. Families should prepare for two scenarios in the event of severe weather: to remain in their homes during the duration of a storm, or to evacuate if it is recommended or ordered by local authorities, Cannon said in a news release.
PEMA recommends residents keep enough food in their homes to last at least 72 hours as well as flashlights, extra batteries, a battery-operated portable radio, a first aid kit, a non-electric can opener and essential prescriptions.
If residents are ordered to evacuate, PEMA recommends they take important items with them, including checkbooks, driver's licenses, credit card information, birth certificates, Social Security cards and other essential documents.
The American Red Cross said Friday it has placed disaster training workers in Northeastern Pennsylvania on alert and readied emergency response vehicles and supplies in preparation for a potential disaster.