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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Workers restoring natural gas outage welcomed with open arms

By Kaylee Brewster Lewiston Tribune

Even without heat, those restoring gas services to the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley and the Palouse received a warm welcome from customers.

During a brief visit with utility workers, they were met with honks, shouts of thanks and waves from passersby in cars. The Avista energy company brought in 300 mutual aid responders from around the western United States for a total of 800 workers restoring services.

Two of those mutual aid workers were gas service representatives Joseph Williams and Kevin De Lima, who came from Concord, Calif., with Pacific Gas & Electric.

“It’s been wonderful to be here,” Williams said. “People have welcomed us with open arms.”

“It’s been an honor and pleasure to come out here and help,” De Lima said.

Work to restore natural gas services for Avista customers is nearly complete, reaching 32,000 customers as of 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, the utility company reported. That number includes all the service zones on the Palouse and in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley. There were fewer than 250 customers waiting for initial visits, which were expected to be complete by Tuesday evening, according to a news release from Avista.

“We are extremely grateful to our customers for their patience and support throughout the past week,” said Avista President and Chief Operating Officer Heather Rosentrater in a news release. “This was a difficult time for residents and business owners in the Palouse and L/C Valley. We want the entire community to know that the kindness our service teams experienced was witnessed and felt.”

As a company, PG&E averages about 107 relights an hour. Individually, Williams and De Lima average about 20 customers an hour, around six minutes a job. Oftentimes they spend most of that interaction talking with customers.

At one home, some girls gave them bags of candy with thank you notes. “I am thankful for you to drive all the way from CA to help us! Thank you for heat!” one note read.

At one point, Williams and De Lima had received about two dozen cookies that were all homemade, nothing store-bought.

“It’s been amazing, I’m telling you, the cookies, the candy from the kids,” Williams said. “I must have gained 10 pounds.”

“The hospitality up here is like something I’ve never experienced,” De Lima said, although he noted that customers back home in California are also appreciative of their services.

But the work isn’t done yet. Approximately 3,500 customers are waiting for relights because they weren’t available during initial attempts. Those who need relight services can call 1-800-277-9187, according to a news release.

“For the most part everyone’s been home,” De Lima said about responding to customers for relighting.

Increased staffing levels will continue to complete the remaining relights, according to the news release. Williams doesn’t know yet if he’s staying to continue to help with the restoration efforts but his focus is on being where the need is.

“Taking care of the customers here in Idaho and leading with love,” he said.

“We are extremely proud of our employees, mutual aid partners and local HVAC contractors for accomplishing this extraordinary effort,” Rosentrater said in the news release. “We will forever be grateful. It took thousands of work hours to restore services.”

Good weather was also cited as a factor for the efficient restoration, which makes it easier for the utility vehicles and personnel to get around to homes and businesses. Although the weather has been warm by Pacific Northwest standards, it’s chilly for the Californians who are used to temperatures in the 70s. When they were traveling to the Inland Northwest, Williams and De Lima were told to prepare for all types of weather.

“The process has been really smooth,” Williams said about restoration efforts. “The town and community have been really positive and welcoming.”

Williams also credits Avista for being good to work with and doing well with communication during the process.

The natural gas pipeline was ruptured Nov. 8 when a landowner pulling an implement through a field accidentally struck the pipe 4 miles north of Pullman. The pipe was fixed Thursday, allowing for services to be restored.

When he got the call Nov. 8 about helping with mutual aid response for Avista, Williams said he went home, packed, said goodbye to his family and headed to Idaho in his utility truck. Williams said 90 PG&E employees traveled to Idaho and Washington to assist with gas restoration.

The trip up was split into two days. They made it to Reno, Nev., on Nov. 8 and to Idaho the next day. Williams said they’ve been staying at a hotel in Moscow.

Because they took two days to travel, they were well-rested and ready for their first day of work Friday. Their day starts with a morning briefing with their strike team leaders, which includes safety instructions. Then Avista dispatches the crews with their work displayed on a tablet. There are two people in a truck, which Williams said makes navigation better in “unfamiliar territory.”

When crews go to a home, they make contact with the customer, introduce themselves and ask them what services need to be restored. They check the meter outside and then head inside to relight services. When the appliance is relit they also do a safety check and set the thermostat to make sure the heat is working.

To make sure they can keep up the work, they take breaks throughout the day. Some of those include tasting local dining options like KC’s Burgers and Brews in the Lewiston Orchards and the Hells Canyon Grand Hotel.

“We haven’t had a bad meal,” De Lima said.

It’s one more aspect Williams and De Lima have enjoyed about being in the area, even if it is a work trip.

“Thank you to the community for being so kind to outsiders coming in to help,” he said. “It really made this process one to remember.”