Crews perform difficult power play after the storm | Klaas

Crews were out in full force restoring power to thousands of residents following last week
Crews were out in full force restoring power to thousands of residents following last week's wicked storms.
— image credit: Frank Shires cartoon

Last week's nasty snow blast and subsequent ice storm that fooled even the forecasters called for a military-style response from frontline workers and support personnel.

Puget Sound Energy was pushed beyond its limits.

And the recovery continues one week later.

The utility giant – with help from out-of-state-deployed power crews – has responded to its share of devastating winter storms. But few equal last week's damaging, frozen fury from Western Washington's unforgiving skies.

Auburn was hit especially hard, notably when property-wrecking limbs, branches and trees mangled and brought down power lines, knocking out electricity to nearly all of the city's 66,000 or so residents.

City officials are in the process of compiling figures as costs of the widespread damage mount. Mayor Pete Lewis issued an emergency proclamation Monday to expedite citywide recovery efforts.

The snow and ice that slammed Seattle last week cost the Emerald City an estimated $1.35 million.

"I've never seen an ice storm that was so damaging as this one," said Roger Thompson, a PSE spokesman who has been with the utility company for 12 years. "In terms of the intensity of the damage and the concentration of the outages, it probably was as severe, if not worse, than the Hanukkah Eve storm."

That would be in December 2006, when an estimated 700,000 homes and businesses lost power in a massive snowstorm that brought gusts of up to 100 mph. The wind-tossed damages and prolonged outages spread throughout all eight counties PSE serves.

In contrast, last week's storm pulled the plug on more than 400,000 PSE customers – homes and businesses alike – mainly in King, Pierce and Thurston counties, Thompson said. The number represents more than a third of PSE's 1.1 million electrical customers in the region.

By Wednesday, nearly all of PSE customers regained power, including the remaining 1,900 of those in Auburn who were still in the dark earlier in the week.

It was a colossal mess, PSE officials said.

"The devastation of the trees. It was awesome ... in negative terms," Thompson added.

Crews were quickly dispatched after the snowstorm struck overnight on Wednesday (Jan. 18), but the ensuing frozen rain and accumulating ice the following day made for dangerous work conditions.

"We had many crews out in the field on that Wednesday. They were already restoring service, getting the lights back on for a fair number of customers, but the branches and limbs, even trees, were dropping all around them," Thompson said. "Eventually, by mid to late afternoon on Thursday (Jan. 19), our troops had to pull back. Crews literally had to get into their trucks and leave areas for their own safety. There was so much lumber coming down around them."

Work begins amid the ruins

By last Friday, the weather and work conditions stabilized, enabling crews to fully attack the restoration areas.

Reinforcements also arrived from throughout the West and beyond – Alaska to Canada, Arizona to Missouri – pushing the total restoration force to about 2,000 workers. That number included more than 200 four-person line teams, along with service repair personnel, tree-cutting crews, damage assessors and supply and support specialists.

In all, more than 1,500 linemen were working to restore power, though not at the same time.

"We are hitting it with everything we've got," Thompson said Tuesday afternoon.

Crews worked nonstop, with few breaks and little sleep. Crews generally worked 18-hour shifts, six off, then repeated it.

"I think the word heroic is kind of overused, but these people really are Herculean in the way they approach their jobs," Thompson said. "As hard as they work, we realize how hard it is for the customer, too."

Extended outages are frustrating for residents, but they are especially hard on the elderly, many of them immobile and with medical needs.

Thompson and PSE can only sympathize. Despite the large volume, extensiveness and complexity of the outages, not every customer is understanding.

Utility companies often are criticized, make headlines when they boost rates and receive their share of complaints from dissatisfied customers.

Some outage-weary customers took it a step further this week, reportedly having threatened PSE employees at the utility's Olympia offices. The company hired off-duty State Patrol Troopers to provide security.

For utility companies, the work and scrutiny intensify in the storm season. Crews are pressured to perform quickly and efficiently, around the clock, bad weather and all.

"People can put up with it for a certain amount of time, but not surprisingly people can start to get real cranky over (a prolonged outage)," Thompson said. "We understand this. ... It's hard on people."

Even harder on the people restoring power to the people.

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