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Restoring power to Alaska windstorm victims a round-the-clock job

Ben Anderson
A felled tree in Fairview.
Courtesy Thomas Higgins
A windstorm in Anchorage Tuesday night uprooted trees all over town, including this one on Anchorage's Airport Heights neighborhood.
Christopher Kelliher photo
ML&P work crew deals with a tree that downed a power line on Tudor a few blocks west of Lake Otis. Workers removed power lines and used a chain saw to cut away the tree.
Jill Burke photo
Kamaki Wilson, age 18, works a machete to clear a downed tree that had fallen across the sidewalk west of Tudor Blvd. Wilson moved here 6 months ago from Hawaii and is no stranger to wind storms and fallen debris.
Jill Burke photo
Sign at Starbucks at Tudor and C St. -- to the disappointment of caffeine freaks.
Jill Burke photo
ML&P work crew deals with a tree that downed a power line on Tudor a few blocks west of Lake Otis. Workers removed power lines and used a chain saw to cut away the tree.
Jill Burke photo
Damage from the freak storm that blew into Anchorage on Sept. 4, 2012. Picture taken in East Anchorage, near the Boniface Gate of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
Community photo
APD Officers control traffic at Arctic and Tudor, where lights were out.
Jill Burke photo
A tree lies fallen in a yard off of Grape Place in Midtown.
Jill Burke photo
A hiker revels in 100+ mph winds at Glen Alps on Tuesday, September 4, 2012.
Courtesy Josh Martinez Photography
The Veterans Memorial Flagpole lies on the ground after being knocked over by winds on September 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
State house candidate Cean Stevens was helping neighbors in Anchorage's Airport Heights neighborhood Wednesday by taking a chainsaw to fallen trees.
Amanda Coyne photo
A felled tree and badly damaged shed at Airport Heights.
Amanda Coyne photo

In the wake of a freak windstorm that knocked out power to tens of thousands on Tuesday night, power companies are still struggling to get electricity back on in many parts of Anchorage and the Matanuska Valley. Thousands remained without power Thursday -- and some customers may remain in the dark for days to come.

At the storm’s peak, at least 60,000 homes across Southcentral Alaska lost electricity, including most of Municipal Light and Power’s 30,000 customers, as falling trees and high winds knocked out all three of the company’s transmission lines. Chugach Electric estimated 25,000 people lost electricity on Tuesday night, although about 5,000 of those saw power restored by morning.

In Eagle River and north to Wasilla, about 5,000 Matanuska Electric Association customers were still blacked out Wednesday morning. Yet MEA reported late Thursday that at storm peak, some 16,450 customers had suffered power outages.

By Thursday night, only 500 customers were still without electricity, according to a press release from MEA spokesman Kevin Brown. Most were concentrated in sleeper communities within a half-hour drive north from Anchorage -- Eagle River, Birchwood, Peters Creek and Chugiak.

Losing patience

On Thursday, as crews continued to work around the clock, there were still thousands without power in various areas. Yet the utilities were making progress.

Ronnie Dent, spokeswoman for ML&P, said that between 1,600 and 1,800 customers were without power Wednesday night, but that number had dropped to about 500 by Thursday morning. MEA estimated “just under 1,000” still without power.

Chugach, though, was having the roughest go of it. Sarah Wiggers, speaking for the company, said an estimated 2,000 to 5,000 were still without power, down from about 6,000-9,000 on Wednesday afternoon. Unfortunately, Wiggers said, some customers who had been waiting for power to be restored were finally losing patience and calling in, informing the company of outages they hadn’t previously been aware of.

“It’s tough, we think the number is going down and suddenly it goes back up,” she said. Compounding the problem was the extent of the damage. Though crews were still working around the clock on rotating shifts, the time-consuming nature of the repairs was taking longer than they’d hoped.

“What people are not realizing is that if we have a tree down on the line … and all we have to do is clear the line to get power back without making a repair, that’s a one to two hour job,” Wiggers said. “If we have to make a repair to the line, that’s another two to three hours. If a pole is broken, that could take a day or more to fix.”

Two poles were broken on one stretch of Chugach power transmission line, Wednesday, broken by dozens of trees that fell in a relatively short span. Wiggers couldn't say for certain whether crews had completed repairs.

“The other side of that is that when the repair is done, it may only end up helping 50 people,” Wiggers said.

Major lines had been mostly repaired by Thursday afternoon. Remaining repairs, she said, would progress slowly, restoring service to only a few customers at a time. 

“Generation plants feed the transmission lines, which feed the substations, that step down a level to the feeder lines, then down to individual lines with homes or businesses,” said Dent, adding that ML&P crews were mostly into individual lines feeding a few properties or less. That meant that the bulk of remaining repairs weren’t in any one specific neighborhood, but spread throughout the service area.

“It’s just all over, as far as I understand,” Dent said.

The same problem applied elsewhere. Kevin Brown, Communications Manager with MEA, said that the biggest portion of customers still in the dark were in the Chugiak, Eagle River and Birchwood areas, but there were intermittent outages in Butte, Willow, Meadow Lakes, and even Talkeetna.

Wiggers said that a map showing locations of customers still without power didn’t paint a good picture for Chugach, either.

“I saw the map first thing this morning, it’s the first time I’ve seen it,” she said. “(The outages) are just everywhere.”

No specifics

So when will service come back? ML&P couldn’t provide specifics, but said they hoped to have as many of the 500 customers as possible restored by Thursday night, with an estimate of “another day or so” for the remaining residents. MEA hoped to have “the overwhelming majority” back in service by midnight Thursday, but similarly warned that some customers may face longer times without power.

Chugach, though, was in the worst shape.

“We actually hate to say this, but we’re saying two to five days, that would be completely repaired, everyone back in service,” Wiggers said.  “We’re past the point of saying that we’re going to have everybody restored by tonight.”

Meanwhile, customers are still asked to call to report blackouts in their area if they’re still in the dark:

  • ML&P customers can call 907-279-7671 
  • MEA members in the Matanuska Valley should call 907-746-7697 and in Eagle River should call 907-696-7697 
  • Chugach customers can call 907-563-7366 or 907-762-7888.

Chugach customers should make sure to try both numbers if they get a busy signal on either one, Wiggers said. The office is still seeing a high volume of calls, and she requested that people be patient.

“We’re just asking for some understanding,” she said. “We’re trying as hard as we can.”

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com