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Windstorm topped 1996 ice storm in number of customers affected

When last Tuesday’s winds approached hurricane-force speeds, Debbie Simock was in an emergency meeting at Avista’s corporate headquarters.

Every 10 minutes, the company’s online outage map refreshed, showing thousands of additional customers without power.

“We all looked at each other with big eyes when it crossed the 100,000 mark,” said Simock, an Avista spokeswoman. “We knew that we were in new territory.”

Many Spokane County residents awoke Monday to their seventh day without power. For some, it was a flashback to November 1996, when an ice storm left more than 100,000 Avista customers without power.

Until last week’s windstorm, the 1996 ice storm was the region’s benchmark for weather-related power outages. Some customers waited 13 days to get their electricity back after the storm. Utility workers logged 180,000 hours on the effort.

In contrast, last week’s windstorm knocked out power to 180,000 Avista customers in Eastern Washington and North Idaho, and also left thousands of customers from smaller utilities in the dark.

The storms were quite different in terms of impact, Simock said. In 1996, ice-covered tree branches and power lines created extremely hazardous conditions for line crews working to restore power. Falling tree limbs also hampered their efforts. Some neighborhoods got their electricity back only to lose it again when more branches fell.

While the windstorm took a bigger toll on Avista’s system, the damage stopped when the winds died down Tuesday night.

The utility started putting out the call for additional crews as the windstorm was developing. Avista ramped up the number of linemen scheduled to work and outfitted trucks with extra equipment, including roadblocks, signs and extra communication equipment.

“We saw this event coming the day prior,” said Eric Rosentrater, electric operations manager for Avista’s Spokane district. “But as with any type of weather event, you aren’t quite sure what the size and scope will be.”