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Panhandle Recovering From Storms But Some Customers Face Weeks Without Electricity

Storms that ripped through trees and power lines in Kootenai County like nature’s chain saw last week tapered off Saturday.

Stable, warmer weather meant fewer collapsing trees and a marked decrease in emergency operations.

Refuge-seekers at a Red Cross shelter in Coeur d’Alene were down to fewer than a dozen, and many residents spent their day cleaning up from the mess.

Kootenai Medical Center reported no storm-related injuries and police responded to fewer accidents than in previous days. By early evening, police were busy chasing snowmobilers on city streets.

But on the east side of Lake Coeur d’Alene residents grew increasingly frustrated with mixed messages - from their utility, the media and one another - about how long they’ll be without power.

“WWP tells me two to three weeks and I hear on the radio that we’ll be up in four working days,” said Carlin Bay resident Donna Hatch. “Some people are still thinking it could come on at any moment. We need communication. We want to know what’s going on.”

Washington Water Power Co. officials restored power to more than 2,000 customers Saturday and tried to clarify the confusion for others. But residents along the east shore of Lake Coeur d’Alene probably will not be heartened by the news.

Some 300 customers between Blue Creek and Silver Beach may not have power restored for two weeks because the damage from Tuesday’s storm is so severe.

“The line has essentially been destroyed,” said Rob Strenge, a spokesman for WWP. “We’re having to cut the line out of the trees.”

Strenge denied that WWP was turning down offers of help, but said it could not handle a large influx of repair some of its 300 customers may not have power restored for two weeks, Strenge added.

With recurring storms and longer-than-expected delays in restoring power, disaster officials said they’ll keep emergency shelters open as long as needed. Some may be consolidated if the demand continues to decline from Thursday night’s peak, said Joyce Cameron of the Red Cross.

The disaster agency housed 539 people at eight shelters Friday night, down from 721 on Thursday, Cameron said. Since the first storm hit Tuesday, the Red Cross and other volunteer agencies have served more than 6,000 meals to people who have left their frigid, powerless homes.

WWP, the Inland Northwest’s largest utility, reported it had almost as many setbacks as gains in its efforts to return electricity to Spokane and Coeur d’Alene.

Some 25,000 customers - individual homes or businesses - in the Spokane area remained without service Saturday, along with another 1,200 customers near Coeur d’Alene. Each home in the area has an average of two or three people, so the total number of people without power could be higher than 75,000.

The number of customers without power in Spokane did not change from Friday. Although the utility restored power to about 1,000 homes and businesses in northeast Spokane, it lost power to others in Liberty Lake and northwest Spokane where power briefly had been restored.

Repair crews were pulled out of one area of northwest Spokane because falling trees and branches posed a safety hazard, Strenge said.

“We’re rapidly reaching the point … where those numbers are going to change pretty slowly,” he said.

Strenge denied that WWP was turning down offers of help, but said it could not handle a large influx of repair crews that the Bonneville Power Administration and other utilities in the region have offered.

WWP had 60 line repair crews working Saturday, about six times its normal number, he said. Any more than that would create safety risks if crews working on the same lines could not communicate properly when power was being restored.

“The notion that the more line crews you can get the better, is true up to a point,” Strenge said. “But we are reaching that point.”

An incorrect report that repair crews from Alberta and British Columbia had been turned back at the U.S. border - repeated by one utility spokeswoman Friday on a Spokane radio station - was a result of “some miscommunication” among WWP staff, he said.

A Spokesman-Review story Saturday noted that utility officials first described it as a problem with border guards and later as a problem with questions about a liability agreement. The newspaper report of the incident prompted angry customers - some of them verbally abusive - to call the utility demanding to know why more wasn’t being done to restore power.

But another customer called the newspaper Saturday to say a customer service representative was still telling people that a Canadian repair crew had been refused entrance to the United States.

“There may be some remnants of that misinformation still in the system,” Strenge added.

The real explanation for the change in plans, he said, was the decision by WWP to get the assistance from crews who are closer.

In a press release, WWP Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Paul Redmond accused the newspaper of “misleading and irresponsible journalism.”

Although Redmond was not available to comment in person, Strenge said the story and its headline “led readers to believe we were turning away assistance.”

“We weren’t. We did acquire crews elsewhere,” he said. “As a practical matter, it made not one whit of difference” whether they came from Canada or elsewhere.

The utility did add incremental line crews Friday and Saturday, he said.

Chris Peck, editor of The Spokesman-Review, said the newspaper stands by its story.

“The story was accurate and the headline accurately reflects what the story said,” Peck said. “The newspaper wishes WWP and its staff well in their efforts to restore power to 25,000 customers in Spokane and 1,200 customers in Coeur d’Alene.”

WWP is still accepting offers from other utilities for tree-trimming crews who often must clear debris before the line crews can work. Ten tree-trimming crews were added Saturday, and more were expected today.

As much as 40 percent of WWP’s system was damaged by last Tuesday’s ice storm, Strenge said. There is no estimate yet on the cost of repairing the damage.

As they prepared for more bad weather, officials repeated their warnings about hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning.

More than a dozen people, most of them elderly, had been treated for hypothermia on Friday and Saturday, ambulance officials said.

Officials also asked residents to watch for instances of illegal debris dumping, which could increase as residents clean up their debris-strewn property, and said they had reports of “several cases of suspicious persons with unmarked trucks and no business cards” offering their services for cleanup.

“We’re not saying all of those are con artists,” said City Police Chief Terry Mangan. “We’re just advising caution.”

Mangan also reported that some houses in blacked-out areas had been burglarized, and suspects who are caught could face charges of looting, a more severe felony with longer prison sentences.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo