Utility crews struggling to keep up with ice storm

Jan 20, 2012

Upwards of 250,000 homes served by Puget Sound Energy are without power – and some of the outages are expected to last a long as 4 days. Two of the region's other utilities were also reporting outages, bringing the total to about 280,000.

The ice storm is causing road closures and power outages all over the region.

Pierce, Thurston and Northeast King County are hardest hit.

As wet snow melts and then re-freezes, its weight is breaking tree limbs near roads or pulling entire trees out of the ground.

In Bothell, a classic scenario played out. One road about a mile from downtown was closed after fallen limbs pulled down all three wires of a 3-phase line running overhead.

It's a winding hill, lined with trees, that is a main artery when school is in session. After the icy limbs came down, the power lines were draped dangerously close to the ground.

Operations Superintendent Nik Stroup was on the scene Thursday, near a barricade meant to keep cars and people away.

“It's very dangerous. Because if that line is energized, it could electrocute you,” Stroup said.

The road stayed closed for most of Thursday, reopened overnight, and then closed again after another tree limb fell and knocked out the lines again. (As of Friday morning, it was still closed.)

A big challenge for utilities

Puget Sound Energy has been deploying utility crews all over the region and bringing in subcontractors from other states and Canada. Thursday, they had about 150 trucks out, some with as many as 4 linemen working. Friday, they said they're now trying to get helicopter crews to some areas.

Looking toward the downed wires and a bucket truck about 100 yards away, Bothell's Stroup said city workers know how to identify power lines but they're not authorized to touch them. So they’re grateful to the utility linemen who can.

"They're basically just up there repairing the lines one wire at a time. And once they get this wire re-strung, they'll get this road open again and off they go, to the next one," Stroup said. 

An uphill battle that feels endless

Puget Sound Energy says this ice storm is actually keeping a lot of crews from moving on very quickly. Often, as played out in Bothell, just as they finish clearing one line, other limbs are falling on the same scene – in one of the most challenging storm scenarios they’ve ever experienced. That’s why they say it’s taking so long to clear some roads and restore power.

The crews are finishing up, getting ready to go and then after icy limbs come down again overhead, being called back to the same scene. "As many as three times in one area," said Puget Sound Energy Spokesman Roger Thompson.

The goal is to get people's power back on as soon as possible, which means double-time for many crews.

Thompson says he can't estimate the cost of all of this yet, but "it's not cheap" because the "line crews go into battle mode" and work exhaustive hours.

They are well-compensated union workers, often receiving hazard pay, overtime and needing accommodations if they're from out of town.