The ice storm’s punch might have been quick, but thousands of Eastern Washington residents still could be reeling on Thanksgiving.
Spokane County homes and businesses without power since Tuesday afternoon may remain that way for another five to seven days - nearly double earlier predictions.
“I have never seen a storm that has had this impact on our service area,” said Washington Water Power Co. Chairman Paul Redmond, whose northeast Spokane home is among those in the dark. “It’s amazing in 12 hours’ time what Mother Nature can do.”
The situation is so bad that WWP was projecting a three-day blackout at 11 a.m. Wednesday, but just hours later, it added two days to the bad news.
At least 60,000 WWP customers in Spokane County remained in the dark Wednesday night - a day after the ice storm shredded the region’s power lines. In North Idaho, about 7,500 homes were without power.
In the aftermath of one of the most vicious ice storms in years, Inland Northwest residents struggled to clean up, keep warm and stay safe.
From Airway Heights to Coeur d’Alene, weary residents emerged from chilly homes Wednesday morning to the horror of broken branches and dangling power lines.
Trees blocked major arterials and neighborhood roads. Icicles fell from street lamps and eaves. Snapped power cables snaked across sidewalks, lawns and streets.
All day Wednesday, WWP fought to get a handle on the power outages, but nearly every successful reconnection met with another downed line.
The 13 WWP line crews exhausted by 30 hours on the job - finally are getting help today when 17 crews arrive from Western Washington. Another 10 are expected Friday.
Thousands of people served by smaller utilities also were without power and could stay that way three to four days.
The dire situation caused Gov. Mike Lowry to declare a state of emergency in Spokane County on Wednesday, enabling officials to call in people and relief supplies from other counties if necessary.
Lack of electricity isn’t the only problem the region’s residents face.
Temperatures are dropping. Water supplies are running low. Hospitals are filling up. Fire dangers are escalating.
Spokane county and city officials are asking residents to conserve water because many pumps that fill reservoirs are getting spotty power or none at all.
Despite the strained situation, officials still urge residents to leave water trickling to prevent frozen pipes.
“You only need to run a pin’s width of water,” said Acting City Manager Bill Pupo.
Temperatures are expected to reach a high of 32 degrees today and dip into the low 20s overnight. Lows should stay in that range the rest of the week, with a slow thaw expected.
The day’s brilliant sunshine gave a dazzling face to the disaster. Chainlink fences shimmered. Streets glistened. Trees glittered.
The beauty belied potential dangers.
“The prognosis isn’t good,” said Spokane police Capt. Roger Bragdon.
A midmorning press conference at City Hall attracted a parade of county and city officials issuing warnings and offering thanks.
Like many residents, Mayor Jack Geraghty said he greeted the day with cold water, “a Viking shave and a Viking shower. It’s been a long night.”
County Commissioner Phil Harris said he was heartened “to see the cooperation citizens are showing to neighbors and friends.”
Harris followed his praise with a word to would-be thieves. “We will have zero tolerance for looting,” he said, adding he and Geraghty wouldn’t hesitate to “call out the National Guard to stop people from stealing in this county.”
Spokane police and sheriff’s departments had no reports of looting by Wednesday evening, but officials expressed concerns their luck might not hold if the blackout continued much longer.
Only a few minor house fires were reported in the city and the Valley by Wednesday evening.
Officials worried that as families relied increasingly on alternative heat sources, such as camp stoves and propane heaters, that trend might change.
“Make sure to stay safe over the next few days,” said Spokane Fire Chief Bobby Williams.
Andra Arment and her family had been without power nearly 18 hours when fire erupted in their Trentwood home Wednesday.
Flames from a fireplace escaped through cracks in the chimney, sparking the blaze, firefighters said.
Arment and two neighborhood children carried buckets of snow and splashed water on the flames that crawled into the attic.
“I looked up and there were flames above the fireplace,” said Arment, as she stroked the family’s Chinese pug dog cradled in her arms. “I saw one kid and said, ‘Grab some snow and get in here and help.”’
City and county street crews spent the day clearing paths through streets strewn with fallen trees and broken limbs. “It’s not an emergency to clean this up,” said Public Works Director Dennis Scott. “Our job is to clear the roads to allow you to get to work, allow you to take care of your family, allow emergency vehicles to get to you.”
The storm and its ripple effects spawned at least two record-setting numbers.
Between Tuesday and Wednesday morning, WWP heard from a record 21,000 frustrated customers.
Dick Collins, director of the area’s 911 services, said the emergency number logged 3,000 calls in a 24-hour period, beginning Tuesday morning.
“That exceeded the number of 911 calls received during Firestorm,” he said, adding that residents should call 911 only in life-threatening situations.
While some people panicked, others took the storm in stride.
In Coeur d’Alene, a mess of ice-laden branches lay tangled and twisted on Frank Wiedemann’s roof and the ground. A red fir tree pulled on the power cable to his house. The line lay exposed, surging with electricity.
Wiedemann and his wife have no prospect of seeing power restored to their home soon. Power lines to individual residences will be the last repaired.
So, the Wiedemanns stay warm by their fireplace and spend their evenings playing Scrabble by candlelight.
“We’ve been here 25 years, and we’ve never seen it like this,” Wiedemann said.
“What gets me is how Mother Nature can be so cruel and so beautiful.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (2 color)
The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Kristina Johnson Staff writer Staff writers Bert Caldwell, Adam Lynn, Brian Coddington, Kevin Blocker and Winda Benedetti contributed to this report.
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