November 22, 1996 in Nation/World

Wwp To Re-Evaluate Disaster Planning Utility Counts On Neighboring Companies For Support, But They Were Swamped By Ice Storm, Too

Bert Caldwell And Jim Camden S Staff writer

Washington Water Power Co. will take a hard look at its disaster planning in the aftermath of Tuesday’s devastating ice storm.

The utility fields only 17 line crews in Spokane and Kootenai counties, betting that neighboring utilities and local contractors can supply reinforcements when the going gets particularly tough.

But a downpour of freezing rain shattered that strategy, as WWP found expected allies struggling to repair their own damaged transformers, downed wires and splintered poles.

“For us, this is really an unprecedented experience,” WWP spokesman Ed Renouard said Thursday as 35,400 customers in Spokane and Kootenai counties remained without service.

On Tuesday afternoon, the blackout toll peaked at 100,000 homes and businesses. Although WWP summoned help immediately, Renouard said little was available, and in the dark of Tuesday night, deployment would have been difficult.

“We wouldn’t have been able to put anything together faster,” he said. “The work has to be identified before crews can go do it.”

Wednesday, as damage estimates mounted, WWP officials conceded they were frustrated by their inability to restore service as quickly as they had anticipated.

Few new crews were available because the Portland, Yakima and Puget Sound areas were dealing with weather-related emergencies of their own.

But on Thursday, the number of crews working for WWP had swelled to 41 as support poured in from the public utility districts of Benton, Chelan, Douglas and Grant counties, the Bonneville Power Administration and elsewhere.

Renouard said more help is due today from B.C. Hydro and Alberta Power.

Still, the repairs could last into next week, WWP officials said. And an assessment of how the situation might have been handled better will start shortly after power is restored.

“There will be a re-examination of our emergency plan overall,” Renouard said. “It’s standard practice after an event like this.”

The solution may not include beefing up WWP’s in-house line crews, he said, even though comparisons with other utilities in the region indicate most have more manpower.

Renouard said the differences could be due to several factors.

Portland General Electric, for example, serves an area with booming development, and crews are needed for construction as well as maintenance.

In the case of utilities with rural service territories, Renouard said, widely scattered crews are necessary just to keep help relatively close when problems arise.

“Our system is cheap compared with other utilities, and it’s reliable,” he said, adding that incremental improvements could be expensive.

The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission does not set a minimum required number for line crews, spokeswoman Marilyn Meehan said.

“The commission would consider that micro-managing the company,” she said.

When the enemy is ice, other utilities in and out of the region are sympathetic.

“There’s nothing worse,” said Pam Levetzow, a spokeswoman for Kansas City Power and Light, which covers western Missouri and eastern Kansas.

KC Power and Light had a situation akin to the Spokane storm in October, when an early snowstorm hit the region while green leaves were still on the trees. Overburdened limbs and full trees crashed into power lines, knocking out power to some 175,000 of the company’s 425,000 customers.

Eighty percent had power restored within 72 hours, Levetzow said. The remainder were primarily customers who had their individual service lines damaged. They all had power by the sixth day.

The utility sent 364 repair crews, plus 130 tree-trimming crews and 27 independent electrical contractors into the field. At any one time, 1,500 individuals worked on repairs.

The Kansas City utility has one of the nation’s most aggressive tree-trimming policies, spending as much as $10 million per year to trim limbs and remove trees near lines.

WWP spends $4.5 million per year.

Though the Kansas City tree-cutting program was unpopular at first, it paid off. The year before it was instituted, the utility had 1,200 tree-related outages. Three years later, it had 277. But both of those were years without ice storms, Levetzow said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photos Graphic: Line crews compared

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