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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Got power for Thanksgiving? 25 years later - be thankful

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 24, 2021

Gov. Mike Lowry declared a disaster within the 24 hours of the first exploding transformer. Hospital staff stayed over for second shifts when colleagues couldn’t make it to work, trapped by jumbles of downed trees. Traffic lights went black and power lines decorated icy intersections. The Spokane County Department of Emergency Management lost power, county commissioners having cut DEM’s request for an emergency generator. It was an “I told you so moment” for new deputy director Dave Byrnes, and an “oops” that would be rectified the next year. An Emergency Operations Center was hastily set up in the basement of the downtown city fire station.

It was only the beginning of Ice Storm ’96.

Original news briefings and situation reports were handwritten, now archived in a thick three-ring notebook at the Spokane County Department of Emergency Management. On Day One, Spokane police reported no power at the police station and “everyone with a car and a light on it is in service.” Spokane Fire Chief Bobbie Williams reported his crews were no longer responding to arcing power lines as calls for fire and medical response surged. Byrnes recommended “people stay home and make do if they can.”

Mike Fitzsimmons walked out of the KXLY radio studios that afternoon and looked across the river. “You could see from the parking lot across the South Hill the flashes of blue (from transformers) followed by the crack of breaking branches … there was a significant layer of ice over everything. We needed to be sure we were covering this.” That first night KXLY radio had the media market to itself, the only station with backup power.

Today, everyone with a cellphone would be reporting live to the world. Twenty-five years ago, cellphones were rare, the size of a brick, and only made voice calls. In 1996, live talk radio was a lifeline for getting information to a public left not only in the dark but often without phone service as landlines snapped.

After action reports stressed communication as critical. Spokane, Spokane Valley and Fire districts 9 on the north and 8 on the south all had separate 911 call centers for fire dispatch. Gordon Grove from the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) network fielded the first request for help from Fire 9. “They were receiving an avalanche of calls regarding fallen power lines, and busy signals when they tried to report to WWP,” Grove said. A total of 65 volunteer amateur radio operators provided more than 2,100 hours of service over two weeks to connect the EOC, dispatchers, hospitals, Red Cross shelters and utility companies.

By Day Two, Washington Water Power Co. alone had logged over 18,500 calls for service across Spokane County; at least 100,000 households were without power. Restaurants closed and families ate cold meals by candlelight, or joined more fortunate neighbors. Ben Haworth, then working for Sacred Heart Hospital in disaster preparedness, had no power but remembered opening his home to the neighborhood. “We had a gas stove, so we were doing meals,” Haworth said. Water shortages due to powerless pumps worried the fire department, along with the impassable roads. According to a news briefing from Nov. 20, “citizens were urged to use chain saws to cut up the usable fallen debris in their yards.”

On Day Three, Spokane Fire reported responding to more than 15 working structure fires. Chimney fires flared in fireplaces unaccustomed to and unprepared for constant use. Two people died in Spokane Valley after using a hibachi in a closed space, and seven cases of carbon monoxide poisoning were reported.

A memo to patrol officers warned “we are running short of flares … now that motorists have become used to trees in the streets we can probably save our flares for traffic accidents.”

Ambulance demand had been steadily increasing the first three days, but on Day Four the news briefing started with “Spokane Ambulance reports a 300% increase in calls for service over the past 24 hour period.” Mike Lopez, working the disaster with Spokane Ambulance, said it wasn’t a case of an extra zero. Calls were both weather-related and patients experiencing hypothermia after three days inside powerless houses. “We were able to hold our own for the first 48 hours, but we were really crunched,” Lopez said.

It’s easy to forget first responders are also disaster victims. Crews can function on adrenaline for two days, then it starts to wear off. Spokane Ambulance’s sister station in Seattle “rallied the troops up and down I-5 from Olympia to Everett and found crews to come in and help,” Lopez said. “We were so grateful we had the backup from the West Side; it let our crews go home and take care of their own families.”

On Day Five, ambulance calls dropped to only 40% over normal and shelters began to empty, but WWP still reported over 25,000 powerless households. With a week to go, WWP dispatchers were directed to caution customers it “might be pushing Thanksgiving.” The tone of the news briefings became less about crisis, more focused on cleanup and on Apple Cup traffic to Pullman with another weather front predicted to move in.

This Thanksgiving, I’ll be grateful to have power. And go Cougs!

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at rulingpen@gmail.com.

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