Strictly Business: Utility ready for emergency

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 

Thousands of utility workers from across the nation, including 11 from our own Clark Public Utilities, are joining in the massive effort to restore power to the millions of homes and businesses whose power lines were damaged by the epic Hurricane Sandy.

The task of coordinating recovery efforts is truly daunting. Media reports from a vast storm-damaged region tell of frayed nerves and anxious residents who are worried about safety in their neighborhoods and warmth in their homes. Advances in coordination and technology have improved responses to disasters, and time will tell whether advance planning in the East was effective in the face of an unprecedented onslaught from Mother Nature.

Here in our corner of the world, the Columbus Day Storm of 1962 was our learning experience in showing the worst-case need for emergency planning. The windstorm swept across large areas of Oregon and Washington, knocking out power to an estimated 1 million homes.

It was a storm no one anticipated. A dozen days after the Oct. 12, 1962 storm, a few Clark County residents were still without power, according to an article in The Columbian from that time.

Having lived through that storm, I remember those long days and nights without lights, refrigeration, or a stove to cook meals. Without television, our links to the world were transistor radios and newspapers. We waited for power as neighbors took chain saws to the trees that blocked streets and sidewalks. We wondered why electricity to houses across the street was restored days before our own.

Fine-tuning response

Like most utilities, Clark Public Utilities is constantly working to fine-tune its disaster response. Our wind and ice storms provide plenty of challenges for utility crews.

The utility's strategies are similar to what a doctor tells a healthy patient: think of prevention first, then reaction. The utility has a tree-trimming program, and its employees report dangerous branches they see during the course of their travels.

The utility has established two mutual aid agreements with other utilities for emergency response and has contracted with about 10 private companies for emergency crews, with prices set in advance.

It has a coordinated response plan, having divided the 628-square-mile district into seven sub-units for its plan of attack. Crews take on the biggest challenge first -- a damaged substation, followed by critical customers such as hospitals, then working down to lines to individual homes. Even today, the utility relies on phone calls from customers to pinpoint problems.

But no matter how much planning or technology, there's no escaping the long hours for crews in times of crisis. The Columbian reported on Oct. 24, 1962 that Clark PUD purchasing agent Eino M. Rautio, 57, had died days after the storm of an apparent heart attack, which was "believed to have been brought on by overexertion" during the post-storm cleanup.

Dan Krebs, Clark Public Utilities' transmission and distribution manager, says he's worked 34 hours straight coordinating a response after a storm, and he's had crew members who've worked 40 straight hours. Linesmen in the Columbus Day storm reported working two 24-hour days, followed by a string of 18-hour days.

We're thankful for their efforts, and wish our Clark Public Utilities crews the best as they help untangle the mess left behind by Hurricane Sandy.

Gordon Oliver is The Columbian's business editor. 360-735-4699, http://twitter.com/col_goliver; http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business, or gordon.oliver@columbian.com.