How Chugach crews tackled storm outages

I'm proud of the work done by our Chugach crews and the many people and organizations who came together to respond to outages resulting from last week's storm. Chugach appreciates the cooperation and patience shown by the vast majority of Chugach members during the storm. Let me tell you how it all worked.

The violent windstorm disrupted many public services throughout the Anchorage Bowl, including service from three electric utilities. The storm hit Tuesday evening. Before it arrived, we were preparing for it. We held crews at work and alerted our entire work force and contractors.

The first outages were reported about 6:30 p.m. We called in more personnel as the evening progressed. Overnight, outage numbers peaked, with about 31,000 metered locations out of power -- about 40 percent of our customers. Within 24 hours, we had restored power to 85 percent of those without power.

Winds were incredibly strong and sustained. Some official monitoring stations in the windiest places were knocked offline. Unofficially, winds of up to 131 miles per hour were reported. East Anchorage, the Hillside and Turnagain were hard hit but outages occurred across Anchorage.

For Chugach, this was largely a cottonwood tree storm. We estimate more than 80 percent of our problems were caused by falling cottonwoods. Our distribution easements and rights of way are generally 20 feet wide and we re-clear them every three years. The problem was with trees from outside easements. Across the system, cottonwoods 70 feet and taller, in full leaf, caught the wind and tipped over at the root base. Spruce, birch, aspen and ornamental species also fell and caused outages.

Electric utilities restore power working from the source of generation to the customer. On the Chugach system, this means the order is power plants, transmission lines, transmission substations, subtransmission lines, distribution substations, primary feeders, taps, secondaries and services. We also prioritize public safety and key public facilities like sewage lift stations. We work closely with emergency personnel, and responded to 50-70 calls for assistance from the Anchorage Fire Department, most often for downed lines and fires.

In the Lower 48, many utilities don't respond until winds have subsided to 40 mph. Chugach will respond during a storm, if it can do so without endangering workers by, for example, sending them into dark, forested areas with trees still falling.

It took time for winds to subside but once the storm passed we began a detailed assessment of the damage. By our Thursday press conference we knew restoration would take days for some customers. We shared this with the media and our members.

As the magnitude of the damage became clear, we added crews working on restoration. We went from a dozen on Tuesday night to 20 on Wednesday, 30 on Thursday and 35 by Friday, bringing crews from Fairbanks and the Kenai Peninsula. We rotated crews, to keep the response going without exhausting the workers. For every person in the field, there were five behind the scenes supporting them.

We answered more than 11,000 calls during the days of the outages, though we know we did not answer everyone. We have 54 incoming trunk lines for our phone system and they were frequently all in use.

By Sunday night, we had restored every outage, other than those where customers needed to repair their own facilities before we could safely reconnect them.

As always after a major outage we are critiquing our own performance, reviewing lessons learned and implementing changes, including expanded outage information and a new tool at our website that members can use to report an outage. It's our goal to provide timely information and ensure effective two-way communications with our members.

Bradley Evans is chief executive officer of Chugach Electric Association.