First came the report of two linemen down southwest of Aberdeen, followed by the wall-sized electrical grid map lighting up like a Christmas tree, topped by the incessant alarms and phone calls like there was a runaway train headed for the heart of the county.
Then, suddenly, everything went dark.
Even in the PUD’s one-year-old System Control Center above Electric Park, built for just such an emergency, there was nothing but the howling and helpless sound of the wind.
Grays Harbor PUD dispatcher Jeff Willis shudders when he recalls the tense Sunday night in System Control Dec. 2, 2007, as the devastating storm tore down hundreds of PUD utility poles and power lines, blowing out transformers and substations across the system, and severing the Bonneville Power Administration transmission serving all of the western part of the county.
“It’s something that affects you deeply,” Willis recalled. “This really escalated and it wasn’t a lot of fun.”
Days earlier on Friday, the PUD had issued a news release along with other media outlets warning that windy weather could cause problems over the weekend. Much of the concern was about a forecast for snow.
No one, however, was prepared for how hard and how destructive this storm would be.
“What sticks out in my mind is that I don’t remember any anticipation of it coming,” Willis said.
He remembers watching the board showing the PUD’s transmission grid turn from red to green, a color that is not good, “from hot to not,” as audible alarms rang out over and over.
“You could just see it coming from southwest to northeast, knocking circuit after circuit after circuit out, and then, boom, we were in the dark,” Willis said.
“We had no advance warning,” said PUD General Manager Rick Lovely.
By Midnight Sunday, almost all of Grays Harbor County was without power. The PUD lost 90 transformers and replaced more than 400 poles in the storm and spent over $3 million in materials alone because of storm damage. Virtually the entire PUD staff worked countless hours trying to restore power or support the efforts, with office workers turning into delivery drivers or cooks, gas tanked in from Pettit Oil Co. using generators to pump fuel, and crews of linemen coming to help from as far as Oregon. Highway 12 between Aberdeen and Montesano was impassable because of the number of trees and power lines down.
“The key for our community was Central Park, and all those poles down,” recalled Operations Manager Ed Pauley. “That was just what most people could see. Imagine what the rest of our system looked like.”
A veteran of Florida hurricanes before he came to Grays Harbor, Pauley said he had never seen winds like the ones that caused the damage in 2007.
“The winds just stayed up there and didn’t stop like they predicted,” Pauley said. “Usually, you have 60-70 mile-per-hour winds for an hour or two and then it’s over with. I have been in too many storms to know that when something like that stays for eight hours, that’s bad. There is nothing good about it.”
Scott Daniels was part of a PUD line crew working early that first Sunday night to try to restore power in the Newskah area southwest of Aberdeen. He and fellow lineman Dan Perron were finishing up just before the order was given about to bring the crews back in as the winds were becoming dangerous around the county.
But a tree hit their bucket truck, spilling both men about 40 feet to the ground. It would take over nine hours to get him to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle for treatment of his injuries as emergency crews aided by the Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s Department had to literally cut a path down State Route 12 all the way to Olympia to take Daniels to the hospital. The winds were too strong to use a helicopter. Both men have since returned to work at the PUD.
“The pinnacle moment of the entire storm” came when Daniels and Perron were injured, Willis said
“That tree strike on the Newskah was probably the precursor to the bigger event,” he said.
Everyone at the PUD has a story about how they were impacted and amazed by what they were not only hearing and seeing but experiencing first-hand.
Lovely remembers being at Community Hospital with Pauley visiting the injured linemen that Sunday night when a wind gust blew open the sliding glass doors to the hospital emergency room “and ripped that sucker right out of its framework. After that, they couldn’t close or open the door. That’s a pretty powerful gust.”
Pauley, a veteran of Florida hurricanes before coming to work for the Grays Harbor district, recalls coming out of the hospital and seeing a shelter for smokers get lifted into the air, fly across the parking lot, “hit a couple of cars and it kept going over the hill.”
Fleet Maintenance Supervisor Denny Dierick lives outside of Montesano, so just getting back to Aberdeen for work the Monday after the initial brunt of the storm was an adventure he’ll never forget.
“I made it 100 yards down the road and had to turn around and get the chainsaw,” he said. The worst of it, however, was when he arrived and saw the bucket truck with the broken boom where Daniels and Perron had last been working.
“You don’t see that very often,” he said.
Pauley noted the tree that hit the two lineman was not that big but the force of it in the wind was nearly deadly.
Carl Jonsson, the PUD’s materials supervisor, felt the brunt of the storm starting the day after when suddenly he had to supply materials in amounts unheard of before, with all transportation routes in and out of the Harbor closed to traffic.
“Once I got here, the big thing for us was materials,” he said. In all, he estimates the PUD spent $3 million for materials alone related to storm repairs and damage. Because Interstate-5 was flooded, deliveries had to come from Portland up the Columbia River, through Yakima, over Snoqualmie Pass. With the lights out even in the warehouse, Jonsson couldn’t track anything on computers or order online, but somehow it all got done and others pitched in to help.
“We were serving up to 50-plus crews, so we had everybody from the office and any warm body we could get to make deliveries, deliver food, deliver materials,” Jonsson said.
During the entire process, there were no issues raised and no labor disputes, Lovely said.
“We had to pull together as a team,” he said. “We had people cooking food, people working in the warehouse, people working out flagging.”
Even a team of retirees was brought in to assist in restoring power.
To pay for storm damage, the PUD took out a $10 million line of credit that could be accessed for emergency repairs until reimbursements could be applied for through the Federal Emergency Management Association. It paid off the line of credit in August 2011.
The final reimbursement check from FEMA, for $443,000, did not come until February 2012. Prior to that, the district received about $4.5 million from FEMA.
After the 2007 storm, the PUD made numerous improvements to it system designed to lessen the impact of future storms. The PUD completed a project that included installation of new infrastructure and equipment that allows service in the East Aberdeen business district to be switched to at least two alternate substations on an emergency basis should an outage occur, greatly reducing the time lights are out. There were other improvements made at the same time to improve reliability to Aberdeen High School, the East Campus of Community Hospital and the surrounding area.
The PUD’s experience with FEMA was sometimes contentious, but staff say that better prepares them should a similar emergency develop in the future.
FEMA initially denied PUD claims because the district did not seek competitive bids or sign contracts before the emergency work began. The PUD successfully appealed by arguing that the ability to anticipate a storm of that magnitude and have competitive bids for unknown levels of emergency work was not feasible. The appeal was supported by U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Congressman Norm Dicks, as well as local officials.
Public utility crews from Grant, Douglas, Franklin and Okanogan counties as well as the City of McCleary traveled to Grays Harbor to provide mutual aid, and additional contractors were called to the area to assist with repairs. Pauley estimates the effort involved about 260 pieces of equipment, including all the trucks from outside the area.
PUD Engineering Manager Wes Gray credited Asplundh Tree Expert Co. for its assistance and said he spent hours on the phone to bring in line crews from anywhere they could be reached.
“It was just like that for three or four days, trying to assess and get resources in here to help,” Gray said. “We had a few guys out from the engineering group and service linemen and we would just take little sections, go out and drive it and see if we could get through.”
Some of the hardest hit areas were up the East Hoquiam Road, with nothing but solid trees on the ground, or the Neilton and Quinault areas, Think of Me Hill and the hills above Cosmopolis. There were places where you could only reach by foot to get to a place where you could actually see enough to assess the damage and the work that needed to be done.
“It was like, what do we do? All the poles are down and all the wires are down, and there is nothing you can do about it,” Gray said.
The recovery effort involved nearly everyone on staff in the district able to contribute.
“To a person, everyone at the utility was looking for something to do,” Gray said. “They wanted to contribute. Everybody was here long hours and sleeping on floors.”
Lovely noted for the first three days, it was impossible to buy food anywhere in the area because of the outages. Streeter cooked round the clock. The local Starbucks donated coffee. Top Foods made donations, and people stopped by for days with provisions and food for the workers.
“When you’re busy working, you can go a long time without sleep, as long as you have food,” said line foreman Dale Benner.
Pauley recalled he was in the north part of the county the day before, where power was out around Nielton Point and he had been checking on a crew that already had been out more than eight hours. At the time, he heard weather reports of the incoming system and already had been provisions for crews to be ready on Sunday.
“By Monday morning, we had all the different contractors coming in over different time periods, and the mutual aid people were aboard pretty soon,” Pauley said.
Over a 12-hour period, Pauley said the winds were steadily between 40-80 mph. It wasn’t until the fifth day post-storm when Pauley began to feel the PUD was turning the tide and getting the system back in order.
“There were so many areas where we couldn’t get to, but after the fifth day we had a pretty good idea, and we had all the crews here,” Pauley said.
Most of the outside crews stayed for eight days, and Pauley said the PUD now is far better prepared to handle such a long-term emergency because of the experience of 2007.
“We realize now that if the storm is going to be more than three days, we have things in place like food, or if we need to make arrangements for people to stay in hotels,” Pauley said.
Also, crews in the future will better coordinated, with provisions to go home every night for a sleep period after working 12-15 hours. During the 2007 storm, Pauley was on duty for 12 consecutive days, sleeping in his clothes.
Asked for his best memory of the storm, Pauley replied: “My best moment was going home and actually being able to get into bed.”
Willis believes some of those most affected by the storm still suppressed the worst of their memories from the experience.
“It was one of those events that you hope you never see again,” Willis said.