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Avista says repairs may take three more days

One in five Avista customers in Spokane County remained without electrical service Sunday, five days after a powerful windstorm toppled trees and power lines across the region.

It may be Thanksgiving Day before most of them see the lights and heat back on.

The Central Valley and Mead school districts planned to reopen Monday, but Spokane Public Schools said all of its schools would remain closed Monday because of power outages and school routes blocked by debris and downed power lines.

Recovery efforts may be complicated by a winter storm expected to hit the Spokane region Monday night and into Tuesday. The National Weather Service issued a winter storm watch, saying the complex system has the potential for moderate to heavy snow.

The storm will arrive late Monday afternoon with a mix of rain and snow, and will increase in intensity Monday night into Tuesday, forecasters said Sunday.

Avista is working to restore power to about 34,800 customers, or 19 percent of its accounts, in Spokane County.

“Because of the magnitude of destruction, even with nearly five times the normal Avista crew count, it will still be late Wednesday evening before power can be restored to the majority of customers,” the Spokane-based utility said in a news release Sunday afternoon.

In Kootenai County, about 630 Avista customers were still without service.

In one hard-hit neighborhood on Spokane’s South Hill, 87 percent of Avista customers, or 8,200 accounts, still had no power Sunday evening. That’s the 99203 ZIP code, between 14th and 45th avenues and from Inland Empire Way east to around Crestline Street.

In northwest Spokane, the 99205 ZIP code had about 6,100 customers without power Sunday night, or 30 percent of Avista’s accounts in that part of town.

The Central Valley School District announced Sunday all of its schools and the early learning center would reopen Monday morning. The Mead district also announced its schools would reopen Monday.

Spokane Public Schools, however, will not reopen Monday. District officials said 22 schools are still not operational, and many school routes are not safe yet due to cleanup and repair work.

The district will continue to have warming centers and food service available at five schools from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. They are Rogers and Ferris high schools, Glover and Salk middle schools, and Grant Elementary School.

“We understand the hardship this decision puts on our families, and ask for your patience and understanding as we work around the clock with Avista and maintenance staff to open our schools,” the district said on its Facebook page.

A decision on whether Spokane schools will reopen Tuesday will be made after 5 p.m Monday.

The Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service also said it would resume normal operations Monday at 10 a.m. During its power outage, SCRAPS accepted lost animals and allowed owners to redeem their pets, but the shelter suspended other operations such as licensing and providing spay and neuter vouchers.

“We’d like to remind pet owners to please come down to SCRAPS and redeem their pets as quickly as possible,” regional director Nancy Hill said. “We’ve got lots of well-fed animals down here who really just want to go home.”

Avista said additional reinforcements from Montana and Portland joined the 97 Avista, contract and mutual aid crews that have been working on repairs since Tuesday’s storm. That brings the total workforce to 123 crews working around the clock on a rotating basis, with a combined workforce of at least 650 people in the field, Avista said.

Most of the crews are focused on repairs in Spokane. Hundreds of miles of distribution lines were destroyed by the strong winds, Avista said.

By Sunday evening, power had been restored to more than 140,000 Avista customers throughout Washington and Idaho, or about 80 percent of the 180,000 customers who had lost service at the height of the storm.

Restoring the remaining customers “will be extremely challenging because of the nature of time-consuming and labor-intensive repairs that are necessary in the field,” Avista said.

Due to the severity of damage, repairs are taking longer than first expected, utility managers said. Replacing a single distribution pole can take a crew up to six hours, and 36 power poles alone came down in just one area, near Maple Street and Eighth Avenue. It will take crews several days to restore power in that area, which is served by about 500 customers. In another situation, it took a crew four hours to restore power to eight customers.

Avista first fixed major damage to the system’s backbone, including 42 major transmission lines and 23 substations. On Friday, crews shifted to labor-intensive repairs on distribution lines serving neighborhoods. Work on the distribution feeder in Spokane’s Glenrose neighborhood started Friday and was expected to take several days to repair.

Some of the jobs are being slowed by tight spots where heavy equipment and bucket trucks don’t fit, tricky work on hillsides, and places where crews must jack-hammer holes through basalt rock to place a new pole.

“I want to express my sincere empathy for our customers. Living without power in these cold conditions for several days is very stressful and trying,” Scott Morris, the chairman, president and CEO of Avista, said Sunday in a news release. “I’m extremely grateful for our customers’ patience and perseverance. Let me assure you, we continue to dedicate every available resource at our disposal to restore your power as we recover from the worst natural disaster in our company’s 126-year history.”