Washington Water Power Co. received high praise and mostly subdued criticism Thursday night for its efforts during the November ice storm.
The storm, which cut power to 90,000 WWP customers, was the worst natural disaster in the company’s history.
Much of the fault found with the Spokane utility stemmed from a decision to turn back line crews from Canada when thousands of customers remained in the dark.
Some of the 20 people addressing the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission during the three-hour meeting at Spokane Falls Community College said WWP equipment was antiquated. And there were scattered communication snafus, as North Side resident Ray Forney said.
He said his power was restored Thanksgiving Day, eight days after the initial outage, but a line behind his home showed potentially dangerous burn marks.
A crew passing through his neighborhood the next day agreed there was a hazard, Forney said, yet the line remained unrepaired for more than a week despite daily visits by a succession of crews.
Even after it was fixed, crews continued to arrive, he said.
“Why does it take nine trips to fix one line?” Forney asked. “Where’s this information going?”
Kimberly Woodring, a registered nurse with a background in emergency training, asked when WWP had conducted a drill for a major natural disaster.
The company, which said dispatch limitations restricted the number of line crews it could track, should be able to assemble an emergency center, she said.
WWP Vice President Rob Fukai said drills had not been conducted for what the utility calls a Level 3 disaster, such as the ice storm.
Ways of conducting such an exercise in conjunction with local officials are being studied.
“The problem is maintenance,” said Nancy Singleton, owner of the Greenacres trailer park where two people died trying to warm their home with a small charcoal grill.
She said some power poles in her neighborhood were rotted and toppled from the ice load. When repairs were made, the power stayed off because a transformer was connected improperly.
Marquita Meyer said she was out of power for 10 days, in part because WWP had turned down a request she had made four years ago to have her service line moved away from nearby trees.
Meyer said she was told repairs would be made if the line were ripped down.
“I felt like I asked for help years ago,” the South Hill woman said, adding that neighbors had their power back in four days.
Other people said WWP’s work during the outage went beyond the call of duty.
Northwest Spokane resident Orin Johnson said no one could plan for such an unprecedented storm. Given the extent of the destruction, the real losses were minor, said Orin, a Battle of the Bulge veteran.
“In this operation, there were very few casualties,” he said.
Several representatives of construction crews called in to help assist with restoring the WWP system said the utility was very wellorganized when they arrived on the scene and continued to provide them with excellent liaisons and the appropriate materials throughout their stay.
“You can’t undo an act of God,” said William Arthur of Troutdale, Ore.-based Hawkeye Construction, Inc. “Their system was probably in as good a condition or better as any I’ve seen in the country.”
Arthur defended the WWP decision to turn back the Canadian crews, saying there is a limit to the number that can be handled safely and it was up to the company to make that call.
Spokane officials who managed the city and county response to the outage also praised WWP’s cooperation and responsiveness.
“WWP performed admirably in a situation outside anybody’s imagination,” said City Manager Bill Pupo.
The commission may recommend some changes in WWP procedures based on Thursday’s testimony, as it has in other cases involving Washington utilities, chairwoman Sharon Nelson said.
But there are concerns with suggestions like putting lines underground, she said. “Customers are never interested in rate increases.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: RELIVING THE STORM If you’ve forgotten some of the details of the ice storm or want more background, visit Virtually Northwest, the on-line service of The Spokesman-Review. More than 130 news stories from the disaster are available. Point your browser at: http://www.VirtuallyNW.com/ contents/ and follow the links to “Ice Storm ‘96.”