A winter storm warning that the National Weather Service had originally set to expire at 1 p.m. was extended three hours on Wednesday night, up to 4 p.m. today.
The NWS forecasting station in Morristown expected accumulations of between 5 and 8 inches across most of the area by this morning, warning that travel conditions could turn “extremely dangerous.”
Kingsport Police Department Public Information Officer Tom Patton said Model City streets began taking a turn for the worse at approximately 6:30 p.m., Wednesday. With temperatures dropping, the snow was beginning to stick on some thoroughfares, and he expected treacherous conditions to spread.
Elsewhere in Sullivan County, many secondary roads were already covered and tricky to travel.
According to Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Leslie Earhart, highways were slushy in spots by 7 p.m., while forecasts for continuing snow meant authorities had to plan for the worst through the night and into today.
The American Red Cross was on standby to provide assistance, particularly in the case of widespread power outages, while the Sullivan County Emergency Management Agency had established an emergency operations center.
Accumulating snow always increases the risk of downed power lines and the loss of electricity to homes and businesses. Earhart urged the public not to call 911 in such instances, as that will clog dispatch phone lines for individuals with emergency situations. Issues concerning electricity service should be directed to your provider.
Appalachian Power announced that 100 contractors and employees were being moved into locales most expected to be affected by the storm in their coverage area. AEP said their company meteorologists believed cold temperatures and a lack of wind would work in their favor, limiting outages.
Snow began falling across Southwest Virginia by mid-afternoon and within an hour began to coat secondary roadways while state and contracted highway crews focused on primary routes.
As of 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Virginia Department of Transportation Wise Residency Administrator Allan Sumpter said snowplow crews will be at it all night into today with priority on the primary highways such as U.S. Routes 23 and 58.
VDOT’s Wise Residency includes Wise, Lee, Scott and Dickenson counties. Sumpter said the snow is keeping crews busy on the primary routes, and the secondary roads will likely have to wait until today for attention.
“Snow is falling heavily right now in all four counties we maintain, and the counties are reporting all primaries in moderate condition with snow patches. As the snow started falling in the early evening hours, we were mobilized, so we got that first layer of salt down, so we’ve been able to keep (the primaries) in wet condition,” he said.
“Travel on our secondaries are going to get more and more difficult as the snow continues through the night, and we will probably be into tomorrow before we can get to the secondaries. As long as it snows on the primaries, we concentrate on those.”
Sumpter said it appears the heavier snow bands “started hitting us right around 7 o’clock.”
He said office staff in the Wise Residency office will work through the night to monitor crews.
“They’ll be out all night long. We have a full complement of contractors equipped with plows. During a big storm like this, we try to double up our routes and have two trucks taking on about 10 miles of highway working together,” he said.
“Temperatures will probably drop enough overnight that conditions could be very slick in the morning, particularly on our secondaries. So anybody who needs to be out (this morning) needs to be extra careful.”
By 4 p.m. Wednesday, portions of Interstate 81 in Southwest Virginia were already covered, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation. And from 2:30 Wednesday afternoon to 5 p.m., Virginia State Police troopers responded to 20 crashes within the Wytheville district.
Both Sullivan County and Kingsport police advised motorists to be prepared for potentially hazardous and changing travel conditions today, and they suggested avoiding the roadways unless necessary.
Hawkins County police and rescuers were preparing Wednesday morning for the approaching storm, but they were hoping residents have been preparing for the worst as well.
Hawkins County Emergency Management Agency Director Gary Murrell said residents should be prepared for power outages.
“If they lose power and they have a piece of medical equipment such as a ventilator, oxygen device, or whatever, they need to call 911,” Murrell said. “I have met with the power company, and we have plans in place to take care of them. It’s going to hit late this afternoon, and hopefully everybody will be home. If you don’t have to be out, don’t be out because the state has declared a state of emergency.”
There are locations where shelters will be opened if necessary.
Hawkins County EMA is working with the Red Cross, law enforcement and fire and rescue to coordinate transport to shelters if necessary.
Murrell is asking neighbors to check in on each other and make sure there is heat, especially for elderly residents.
“One good thing about this storm is the temperature will be in the mid-20s, and then back up into the 30s (today), so it’s not like it’s going to be zero,” Murrell said. “If you know anybody without power or who is having a problem, call our 911. We have plans in place to go get these people and make sure they’re taken care of.”
As of Wednesday night, the NWS predicted snow to begin tapering off early this afternoon, with the possibility of an additional 2 inches of accumulation.
A forecast for most of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia predicted totals from the storm at between 5 and 8 inches. Locally higher accumulations of up to a foot were possible for higher elevations.
The NWS warned that hazardous travel conditions will probably exist throughout the day, with refreezing of roads likely to occur after sunset.
A slight chance of rain and snow returns Friday morning, with little to no accumulation, followed by more snow after 10 p.m. on Friday night.
Saturday was projected as mostly sunny in Kingsport with a high of 41.
Staff writers Stephen Igo and Jeff Bobo contributed to this report.