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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

At least 5,000 not expected to have power by Thanksgiving

Alice Niemeirer, left, stands outside her home on 22
 Avenue with friend Verna Eucker as linemen repair damaged equipment and wires that have left the home dark for eight days. (John Stucke / The Spokesman-Review)
From staff reports

A warm Thanksgiving meal at home may be out of reach for thousands of people even as linemen race to restore electricity to homes battered and blacked out by last week’s windstorm.

Avista said late Tuesday that 18,000 customers remained without power. And at least 5,000 are not expected to have power by Thursday.

A new worry emerged as yet another windstorm was expected to punch the region Tuesday night and Wednesday and usher in frigid temperatures.

“We are keenly aware of the hardship, stress and frustration people are experiencing, particularly with today’s weather and the holiday approaching,” Avista CEO Scott Morris said. “Our crews and support staff will be working through the Thanksgiving holiday, and we will do what it takes to restore power to every last customer.”

Local schools, charities and other organizations will be opening their doors Thursday to serve those still in the dark, an additional burden on food banks that will require more charitable giving in the weeks ahead.

“If you think about the normal draw on our food banks, it’s significant, they’re always looking for support,” said Ed Lewis, with Greater Spokane Emergency Management. “Now we’ve thrown this crisis on top of it.”

Most of the outages remain in ZIPcodes 99203, 99205 and 99223, Morris said. That includes the Shadle Park area and what Morris termed the storm’s “ground zero” – the South Hill.

On a stretch of 22nd Avenue between Bernard and Browne streets, a line crew had to climb over and through bushes, retaining walls and fences in backyards to reach downed trees, sagging powerlines and damaged poles.

It was a scenario playing out across the hard-hit area on Tuesday.

Best friends Alice Niemeier and Verna Eucker arrived at Niemeier’s home on 22nd Avenue and clasped their hands at the sight of the line crew hired by Avista to make repairs.

Alice fetched a Corningware dish of casserole from the freezer of her tidy home and said they intended to reheat it for dinner Tuesday night at another home where they are staying.

Eucker lives on 15th Avenue and said the disaster rivaled the ice storm of 1996.

Blocks away in the picturesque Cliff Park neighborhood, crews had to hand-dig holes for new power poles in backyards to replace those that had snapped in half.

Many of the remaining outages are the result of damage to individual service lines that connect a single home to the electric grid, said Heather Rosentrater, Avista’s vice president of energy delivery. That’s what is making the remaining repairs so labor intensive, she said.

A homeowner on Sound Avenue named Martha, who declined to give her last name, brought cupcakes to a crew from Sturgeon Electric of Oregon to say thanks for returning power to her home.

“It’s the least I can do,” she said. “It isn’t about me.”

Crews from as far away as California and Nevada continue to work 16-hour shifts to restore power, Morris said. He urged continued patience in the coming days and asked those without power, but who have neighbors whose lights are back on, to report their outage to Avista by phone at (800) 227-9187.

Inland Power and Light reported all but 350 of its customers had power restored by Tuesday morning, as the winter’s first significant snow fell on Spokane County. The company hopes to have power restored to all its customers by Thanksgiving morning, said Glen Best, chief operating officer for the utility.

Gov. Jay Inslee toured the areas hardest hit by the storm with volunteers checking door-to-door Tuesday afternoon. Mayor David Condon said the city hoped to check on 3,000 homes that remained without power by the end of the day Tuesday, and door-to-door checks would continue through the holiday weekend.

“Please know that you have not been forgotten,” Condon said. “Even now, we have started to knock on some of the doors a second time.”

Inslee praised the local response to the storm, which killed two women and left more than 200,000 customers of various utilities without power across the region last week.

“This county has been tested like never before,” Inslee said.

Property and public facility damage will be assessed over the next week, then the state will apply for federal disaster aid, Inslee said. It’s unclear how much assistance Spokane County will be eligible for, if the county receives any federal money at all. A request for assistance to individual homeowners of this summer’s catastrophic wildfires was rejected by the Federal Emergency Management Agency earlier this fall.

“We know those sometimes can be higher bars to jump over than we would like,” Inslee said of the requirements for federal aid.

When customers are back on line, Avista will start analyzing what made the windstorm so destructive to the company’s transmission system, and the utility’s response to the event.

At this time, however, everything points to the obvious, Rosentrater said.

“It was just the magnitude of the winds and the number of trees falling into the infrastructure,” she said.

About 80 percent of Avista’s transmission system is above ground. The technology that allows utilities to bury power lines didn’t emerge until the 1980s, Rosentrater said. So while newer neighborhoods have buried lines, older parts of the city retained their overhead lines, she said.

“In mature neighborhoods, it’s very costly to go underground,” she said.

Homeowners often need help in smaller ways.

Brendan Love, who owns Green Guys lawn care service, used saws and a woodchipper to clear branches and debris from a home on Browne Street.

He and friend Brent Johnson have been to 14 homes so far to help with cleanup.

Next door, Aaron Randall, an employee of A Plus Garage Doors, has been opening damaged doors and replacing automatic openers that were damaged or were preventing people from accessing their garages.

Avista is testing an advanced metering system in Pullman that helps the utility track when power is out at individual homes and businesses.

In the event of another large storm, advanced meters would help Avista pinpoint where the outages are.

Currently, “the system makes logical assumptions about where the power is out,” Rosentrater said. But it doesn’t catch all of them, which is why the utility encourages customers to call in outages.

Reporters Kip Hill, Becky Kramer and John Stucke contributed to this report.