With snow and subfreezing temperatures expected, more than 35,000 households in the Spokane area remained without power six days after an epic windstorm.
Six days after an epic windstorm toppled hundreds of trees, knocked down dozens of utility poles and killed two people amid near hurricane-force gusts, more than 35,000 households remained without power in the Spokane area Monday as a winter blast pushed into the region.
With snow and subfreezing temperatures expected overnight, emergency officials and utilities crews scrambled Monday to respond to thousands of calls for service.
Public-safety officials, teams of volunteers and others went door to door in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, canvassing households for elderly, disabled or otherwise vulnerable residents who’ve already spent days in frigid homes without electricity, phone service or both.
“It’s going to be a challenging night,” Assistant Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said Monday. “It’s getting colder and colder, and we have an at-risk population of literally thousands who are cold and potentially isolated.”
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Out-of-town contractors and utilities crews from California, Oregon, Nevada, Montana and parts of Canada have responded to the crisis, converging on Spokane to aid local utility crews with repair work hampered by massive trees toppled like match sticks that in some cases have entangled power lines, blocked roads and limited access to repair crews.
“This is a storm that eclipses any other storm in the history of our utility, and that’s 126 years,” said Jessie Wuerst, spokeswoman for the private Avista Utilities, which serves city businesses and residents.
“The amount of destruction has been devastating,” she added. “The winds took out over 40 transmission lines, trees, roofs, poles, you name it. It’s an unbelievable amount of damage to infrastructure.”
In all, three people died statewide after winds toppled trees into cars during the regional windstorm last week.
In the Spokane area, windblown trees killed two, damaged hundreds of homes and other properties and knocked out power to about 187,000 Avista customers. As of Monday, about 32,000 Avista customers remained in the dark, Wuerst said.
Meantime, an additional 30,000 customers of Inland Power and Light lost power last week, utility spokeswoman Jennifer Lutz said. As of Monday, about 3,428 Inland customers remained without power due to what Lutz called “the worst storm Spokane has ever seen.”
With the power outages persisting, Spokane Public Schools announced Monday it would keep its schools closed through the end of this week. Downed power lines and trees blocking sidewalks posed too much danger to children, school officials said.
Schools in the district, which serve about 29,000 students, have been closed since the storm last Tuesday, though several with power have opened some of their facilities as emergency warming shelters for the displaced and homeless.
Tuesday’s windstorm raged over about a 24-hour period with a peak in Spokane in the late afternoon and early evening, said Andrew Kalin, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Spokane.
A gust clocked at 71 mph Tuesday afternoon marked the highest wind-speed ever recorded at the Spokane International Airport for a non-thunderstorm windstorm, he said.
“This was pretty unique,” Kalin said. “To call it ‘historic’ I think would be accurate.”
South Hill resident Pam Galloway, whose restored 1906 Craftsman home was badly damaged by a falling evergreen that just missed her car as she prepared to check on her elderly mother, said the ferocious winds were terrorizing.
Spokane was one of the areas hardest hit, but the windstorm wreaked havoc throughout Washington. A day after the storm, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency in all counties and called upon emergency responders, the State Guard and the National Guard to assist the impacted areas.
With 123 utility repair crews now working 16-hour shifts in Spokane, Avista announced Monday it expected to restore power to most customers by Wednesday evening. The company also has donated about $75,000 to help set up emergency shelters and warming centers throughout the area, Wuerst said.
Still, some frustrated customers, who’ve seen restoration time estimates come and go, remained skeptical Monday.
Drew Ayers, an assistant film professor at Eastern Washington University who moved to Spokane a few months ago, said that he, his wife and their 6-month old son initially opted to “tough out” the power outage at their South Hill home after Avista estimated it could restore power within a few days.
“On Saturday, they said we’d have power by Sunday morning at 6 a.m.,” Ayers said. “Well, that came and went, then it was going to be midnight Monday. Now, the texts just say indefinitely. This sort of constant deferral has made it virtually impossible for us to plan anything.”
Ayers eventually managed to move his family into a room at the LaQuinta Inn in the Spokane Valley. Between the outages and Thanksgiving holiday, motel rooms have been scarce, he said.
Schaeffer, the assistant fire chief, said emergency-management officials had solid plans in place before the storm, “but it caused more damage than we’ve ever seen before here in Spokane.”
“We’re trying,” he said. “And this is a resilient community. But I think it’s one of those situations where it’s prepare for the worst and pray for the best.”