A ‘historic’ blow

Avista calls wind damage largest crisis in company's 126-year history

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Volunteers help to clear Colfax Street after being blocked by debris and downed utility lines which cut power to residents in the area.

As the sun faded Wednesday, Mary Lu Brown braced herself for the second straight night without power.

After inquiring at multiple businesses — the ones she could reach that didn't have downed phone lines, that is — the Athol-area resident struck out in her hunt for lamp oil to help stay warm.

But she drove to Spirit Lake to buy ice at a grocery store to try to salvage cold and frozen goods in ice chests.

With Avista Utilities predicting it could take "at least three to five days" to restore power to the majority of its customers in the region — and Kootenai Electric Cooperative, which is Brown's provider, expecting a week or more for many members — Brown is settling in for the worst-case scenario.

"You just have to get creative," Brown said. "We'll just have to keep cooking on the wood stove. It's a little bit of a challenge, but our background helps."

During the height of Tuesday night's crushing windstorm, about 180,000 Avista customers in North Idaho and Eastern Washington were without power. Of that total, about 18,000 were customers in the Idaho Panhandle. Kootenai Electric Cooperative's number rose as high as 14,000.

"This is the largest crisis Avista has experienced in the company’s 126-year-history," a company press release states.

Each local utility reported about 10,000 residences — 20,000 total — remained without power in Kootenai County on Wednesday. Avista's number represents about 20 percent of the company's customers in the county.

"This is a historic storm for Avista, surpassing outage numbers seen in the 1996 ice storm," said Debbie Simock, Avista spokeswoman, adding about 100,000 Avista customers lost power during that ice event.

As of late Wednesday afternoon, Avista still had about 136,500 regionwide without power.

At the peak of the storm, 42 Avista transmission lines were taken down and 23 substations were also out of service. As of late Wednesday afternoon, 19 transmission lines remained down and three substations remained offline.

The top gust recorded in the valleys in Kootenai County on Tuesday was 67 mph at a station 2 miles north of Huetter at 6:44 p.m., according to the National Weather Service. Gusts at Spokane International Airport reached 71 mph, which was a record for non-thunderstorm winds.

"It's the strongest windstorm of its type we've ever recorded in our region," said National Weather Service Meteorologist John Livingston, adding the agency has compiled wind data for about 60 years.

Meteorologist Randy Mann called the gusts "near-hurricane force."

Officials with the utilities said their crews and those of their contractors will continue to work around the clock to restore power to the region.

"There are countless broken poles and lines," said Erika Neff, KEC spokeswoman. "It may take days to assess the damage to the entire system, and until that process is complete we will not have area-specific restoration details. Members should be prepared for extended power outages. We do not have specific restoration times but outages are likely to last for a week or more for a significant number of members. The damage to our system is staggering."

Along with the 35 crews already working from Avista, help is coming from Pacific Gas and Electric in California, Bonneville Power Administration and NV Energy in Reno, Nev., to assist with restoration efforts.

Simock said entities such as hospitals, police and fire operations will be the first priority of the power restoration efforts. Crews will then work to restore power to those areas with the densest populations and work outward along distribution lines to less populated areas.

Assessment teams and crews are first focusing on rebuilding the remaining transmission lines and substation. Transmission lines and substations must be in working order before any distribution work can be effective.

With the damage done, officials say safety is now paramount.

If you decide to clean up your personal property, assess your surroundings and look up. There may be high-voltage power lines overhead or damaged equipment that is hidden in trees. Stay at least 10 feet from power lines when trimming trees and assume all lines are energized.

Report Avista outages and downed power lines at www.avistautilities.com or by calling (800) 227-9187. Report KEC outages at (877) 744-1055.

 A pile of debris that includes a transformer, a utility pole and lines lies on the corner of Lunceford Road and North Fifth Street in Coeur d’Alene.

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