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Windstorm Briefing: Around 25,000 still without power

Volunteer Ceci Garrett checks up Monday on Chad Kranz, whose power had just been restored on East Pratt Street. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Volunteer Ceci Garrett checks up Monday on Chad Kranz, whose power had just been restored on East Pratt Street. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Utility crews continued to make progress in restoring power, but about 23,500 homes and businesses remained in the dark Monday night.

Avista CEO Scott Morris said crews from six states and British Columbia have joined the massive undertaking of rebuilding Spokane’s power grid.

“We are doing everything we can to restore your power,” Morris said at a briefing Monday afternoon.

In all, Avista has 132 crews working 16-hour shifts with a total workforce of about 700 electrical workers, he said.

Some of the damage is so severe that work crews are having a hard time making progress. In one example, a crew worked an entire shift to restore power to just eight homes, Morris said. “That’s just how hard it is,” he said.

The worst-hit area is the South Hill’s 99203 ZIP code, which is bounded by 14th Avenue, High Drive and Southeast Boulevard, Morris said.

In many cases, the lack of alleys on the South Hill is forcing crews to undertake repairs with hand tools, and in some cases, they are digging by hand into rocky soil.

With a potential winter storm expected Tuesday, Morris said, “Even with the weather, our crews will be out working.”

Snow expected: A snow and rain storm was expected to cause slippery streets Tuesday morning before temperatures warm above freezing.

As the storm moves through, it will leave cold air. Lows could be in the teens and highs in the low 30s in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene. Winds could gust at 21 mph Tuesday and 25 mph Wednesday in Spokane and up to 32 mph Tuesday night and Wednesday in Coeur d’Alene.

The wind chill is expected to drop to near zero degrees Thursday morning.

Plenty of sunshine will come with the cold, which should last into early next week.

Burying lines costs too much, Avista says: Heather Rosentrater, Avista’s director of electrical engineering, said the company’s round-the-clock work to return power to homes and business should be considered the first phase of the utility company’s overall restoration efforts.

A second phase, which will keep crews busy for many weeks this winter, will rebuild the power distribution system’s complicated network of automated switches and other hardware affixed to poles that crashed to the ground during the windstorm.

With poles and wires strewn about neighborhoods, Rosentrater acknowledged that questions about burying the wires to prevent a similar disaster have arisen. She said the company has studied what such a massive undertaking would cost. The answer: at least 10 times as much money to run power lines underground in areas where the distribution system is strung pole to pole.

The challenges would be enormous, she said, since much of the area sits atop basalt and the utility’s natural gas pipeline system.

Avista has considered such a scenario several times over the years, including in the aftermath of the 1996 ice storm.

Rosentrater said power poles – ranging from those in backyards to others affixed with heavy equipment – are engineered to withstand 100 mph winds, but not the massive weight of falling ponderosa pines.

Energy providers progress: Inland Power and Light was reporting that 2,129 of its customers were without power.

Vera Water and Power in Spokane Valley reported 116 outages remaining as of 4 p.m. Monday.

Modern Electric Water Co. in Spokane Valley finished restoring power to customers on Sunday.

Pend Oreille Public Utility District reported that only one customer still was without power at 4 p.m. Monday.

Kootenai Electric Cooperative was reporting that 217 North Idaho customers were without power early Monday evening.

Northern Lights, based in Sagle, Idaho, reported it restored power to customers by Monday.

No damage estimates yet: Avista doesn’t have damage estimates from the windstorm, and it won’t for some time, said Debbie Simock, an Avista spokeswoman. So, it’s too soon to say how the cost of repairs could affect ratepayers’ future bills, she said.

Part of the storm damage will be covered under the utility’s property insurance policy, said Rich Stevens, Avista’s finance director.

The policy covers 23 Avista substations that were damaged during the storm. The substations convert high voltages from transmission lines into smaller voltages that are sent to homes and businesses through a distribution system. However, the policy won’t pay for damage to transmission or distribution lines beyond 1,000 feet away from substations, Stevens said.

An insurance policy for transmission and distribution lines would be cost prohibitive, because Avista would be lumped in with utilities in regions that experience hurricanes and tornadoes, he said.

Door-to-door: As power outages persist in some neighborhoods, volunteer crews have gone door-to-door to check on houses left in the dark. About 250 people have knocked on 4,300 doors over the past four days, city spokesman Brian Coddington said. Volunteers have been trained at community centers and were coordinated through VolunteerSpokane.org.

Wearing bright yellow vests, Ceci Garrett and D’Arcy Dormaier walked along East Pratt Avenue on Monday afternoon to check on East Central homes without power. Homes on the south side of the street had power restored around noon Monday, but their neighbors across the street were out.

Most people weren’t home, so the volunteers left information on staying safe during a power outage on their doorsteps.

Citywide, Coddington said, volunteers have largely found people are fine, but some volunteers have found people stuck in their homes who need firewood or medical care. The city has been working on different neighborhoods each day, guided by a map of power outages.

“The goal at this point is just to hit as many houses as possible,” he said.

For the volunteers, the storm was a reminder that Spokane can feel like a small town where neighbors help each other out.

“It’s brought a real sense of community,” Dormaier said.

Report cable, Internet problems: Besides power being out, many homes are also without Internet and TV services from Comcast and CenturyLink.

Comcast has more than 100 people in Spokane working on the outages, said spokesman Walter Neary, including technicians sent from Western Washington to help.

“We have reports of 450 spans of cable and fiber that need work, but we can’t get to all of them,” Comcast said on its website. “Power crews have to complete their repairs before we can go in. That means a variety of areas throughout Spokane do not have their services.”

Neary said it’s important for customers who have power but not Comcast services to report the issue at (800) 934-6489.

Comcast can’t begin its repairs until power is restored, Neary said, and extra crews will work on Thanksgiving and through the weekend.

Attempts to reach CenturyLink were unsuccessful.

Stress is normal, health officer says: For those without power, the community has opened 23 shelters with food, beds and electricity.

A list of those shelters is online at the health district website at srhd.org.

Dr. Joel McCullough, regional health officer, encouraged residents with power to open their homes to family, friends or neighbors without.

He said that feelings of anxiety and helplessness are normal for those who were displaced by the cold.

“The stress many of you are experiencing is a normal thing,” he said.

Family suffers poisoning: Spokane Regional Health District reported Monday that a family suffered early stages of carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator running in a garage. No one was taken to the hospital, officials said.

It is the third report of carbon monoxide poisoning since Tuesday’s massive windstorm struck the region. Officials are urging caution in the use of fuel-powered devices, including kerosene and propane heaters.

Storm debris: County Commissioner Todd Mielke said the county’s solid waste system will accept storm debris only at the Colbert transfer station. The Spokane Valley transfer station is no longer taking debris so it can handle regular solid waste disposals, Mielke said.

The commissioner also said county roads have been cleared with the exception of locations where debris and power lines are tossed together.

Spokane is accepting debris at the North Side landfill and at the Waste-to-Energy Plant. The city is offering free disposal through Sunday.

Mayor David Condon said residents already have dumped 1,360 tons of storm waste at the two city locations in 3,400 separate drop-offs.

Alley garbage service has been disrupted in some neighborhoods by storm debris. If your alley is blocked, roll your carts to street in front of your home, city officials said.

Sunshine Disposal and Recycling also is accepting storm debris at its transfer station at 2405 N. University Road, Spokane Valley City Manager Mike Jackson said.

Line crews to work through holiday: Line crews are working 16-hour shifts, followed by eight hours off. The workers also take state-mandated meal and rest breaks, said Simock, the Avista spokeswoman. The utility has received at least one complaint from someone who saw a line crew eating in a restaurant.

“The safety of the crews is important,” Simock said. “They need the opportunity to take a break and eat.”

There’s no Thanksgiving time off scheduled for the line crews, she added. They’ll remain on the job until all customers get their power back, she said.

Animal shelters expand services: Pet owners who can’t take their animals to a shelter or other warm place can leave them temporarily, free of charge, in expanded space at Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service, 6815 E. Trent Ave.

“If pet owners need to go to a hotel room or a friend’s house but can’t take their dog, cat, Guinea pigs or birds, they can bring their pets here,” Nancy Hill, SCRAPS’ regional director, said in a news release.

The animals will be fed, cared for and vaccinated. SCRAPS also is opening a warming shelter where pet owners can stay with their pets, charge their cellphones and get something hot to drink during normal business hours.

SCRAPS is working with the Red Cross to provide a co-habitation shelter where owners can stay with their pets at the Girl Scouts offices on Ash Street.

Air quality moderately polluted: A feared spike in air pollution from wood burning has not occurred. Monday’s afternoon air quality was in the moderately polluted range. The air forecast calls for pollution in the unhealthy range for persons with health problems, such as asthma or lung disease.

Ed Lewis, deputy director of the Greater Spokane Department of Emergency Management, said a covering of snow Tuesday morning could hide debris and obstacles in streets.

“We have been fortunate to have good weather,” he said Monday.

He said stiff northeast winds could result in additional trees falling, especially those weakened by last week’s storm.

He asked motorists to drive cautiously and leave extra stopping room.

Staff writers Mike Prager, Becky Kramer, John Stucke, Rachel Alexander and Kip Hill contributed to this report.