2006 storm aftermath: A look back


It's been about a month since the windstorm that brought the Seattle area to a standstill. Puget Sound Energy has posted a recap of the storm, including what I consider to be a wonderful euphemism:

We thank those customers who called to update us with valuable outage status information.

Translation: "We would like to acknowledge all the people who called in to complain."

Not surprisingly, the storm got a lot of coverage in the local paper. Conspiracy theorists will be woefully dissatisfied with this explanation of how the utility companies decide which lines to repair first. I heard in a radio story that another factor is that a small outage may get fixed out of priority order if a repair crew happens to be nearby (presumably working on a higher priority repair) and the problem can be fixed quickly. It's a fascinating optimization problem, deciding how to deploy limited resources most efficiently, and a problem I am glad it's not my job to solve.

Many local governments are looking at low-tech solutions to communications problems, since the power outage highlighted our dependence on electronic communications. One of my friends told me about a local government official who appeared on the radio to announce the opening of shelters for people who were out of power and needed a place to stay. When the local official said, "A list of all the locations can be found on our web site," the show host replied, "Um, people without electricity can't check the web site."

A different friend told me about a caller to a radio talk show from one of the outlying areas who complained about the glacial pace at which municipal services were being restored. The host opined, "Yeah, well, that's what happens when you live in a rural area, I guess."

The caller answered, "Well, I used to live in Seattle, but I left because the taxes were too high."

Comments (34)
  1. Rick C says:

    That last caller showed a touching naivete.

    Of course, people in rural areas especially should practice disaster preparedness.  Get a generator.  Test it regularly. Make sure it’s properly maintained.  Not to mention things that should be obvious like stocking up on nonperishable foods for cases like this.

  2. DavidE says:

    There were some real communications screwups. Most of Redmond had power back in a couple of days, but one part of Bellabotega (the theater and the stores and restaurants on that side) was without power for an extra 5 days. It turns out that the power company just didn’t realize that they hadn’t restored power to that area, and it was 3 days before anyone called them.

    As for the people in the rural areas, give me a break. Most of the power lines come right through the rural areas to get to Seattle. Where do you guys get your power from? Downtown Maple Valley never lost power, but North Bend was one of the later places to be restored. The reason the rural areas got power last was because the utility companies make the most money from the cities.

  3. bramster says:

    Sounds a bit like the Ice storm of 1998 here in eastern Canada

    http://archives.cbc.ca/IDD-1-70-258/disasters_tragedies/ice_storm/

    I know that in one smaller town, a CN railway engine was used to provide power.  Some areas were without power for over a month!

  4. David Walker says:

    Um… taxes too high in the city…. slow pace of restoring municipal services to rural (non-municipal-taxpaying areas)… just in case any readers missed the connection!  Any correlation?

  5. Cody says:

    A former neighbor of mine once complained to the city because the dirt road they live on was never plowed, sanded or salted.  The official response was "Well that’s what you get for living on a dirt road."

  6. David Walker says:

    Just as an aside, for those who don’t know that "Puget Sound" is a body of water, the juxtaposition of "sound" and

    "energy" can lead to some mental parsing errors.

    Sound Energy…. Hmmm….

  7. Actually, quite a lot of Redmond took about 5 days to get power back. From what I was told a substation exploded for some reason and they had to rebuild it.

    I think that 710KIRO (a local radio station) deserve some props for doing some great coverage of what was going on.

  8. Ryan says:

    "Um… taxes too high in the city…. slow pace of restoring municipal services to rural (non-municipal-taxpaying areas)… just in case any readers missed the connection!  Any correlation?"

    No. The power company doesn’t get any of the tax money.

    The power company has no idea when power’s out unless someone calls. They might figure out an entire substation doesn’t have power, but they won’t find blown distribution fuses.

  9. David Brooks says:

    What storm? I’ve stopped trying to impress my family in England http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/6279769.stm about the damage to my house. Last month’s story.

  10. JenK says:

    I can believe Bella Botega was without power "accidently". Ben is also right about much of Redmond being without power 5 days or more.  Education Hill, where I live, was without power for 5 days. Some friends about a mile away were without power 6 days.  

    And yes, we had plenty of food that did not require cooking. We even have a gas water heater which I turned up a bit during the outage so we could have fairly-warm cocoa and tea. I found that 6" of hot water in the tub would warm my bathroom from 45F to 65F in about 10 minutes – handy when beginning my morning ablutions. (We also offered our water to friends with electric water heaters. BYOT.) But I was still haunting Starbucks, Canyons, and the library downtown to soak up heat and wireless each evening.

  11. Sven Groot says:

    David, here in the Netherlands we were hit by that same storm yesterday. Six dead and at least 160 million euros damage (and that’s not factoring in damage to among other things cars, railways and Schiphol airport).

  12. Cooney says:

    The power company has no idea when power’s out unless someone calls.

    That’s pretty crappy. Has noone heard of automated monitoring? At least then you could track things down to a neighborhood by neighborhood basis.

  13. ChrisMcB says:

    PSE knows how much energy I am using at a continual basis. They have those meters they can query.

    There is no excuse for "accidentally forgetting to turn power back on"

  14. Matt says:

    It still amazes me how poor the infrastructure in Seattle is for such a wealthy city.  Anyone heard of underground power lines?  PSE is a joke!

    [PSE answers that question on the linked-to page. They even have an email address you can send your suggestions to. -Raymond]
  15. marijane says:

    Matt, Seattle’s power is provided by Seattle City Light, not PSE.  PSE serves the areas outside of Seattle.

  16. Kjartan says:

    The best thing these companies can do to improve the service in situations like this is to stop having the lines above ground. If we had lines above ground in suburban areas here in Iceland we would not have a mean time between failures of 6years+. Also having the lines below ground reduces the problem of electro magnetic effects of living under powerlines

  17. BobD says:

    Note that underground distribution lines a) cost substantially more than above-ground to install and repair, and b) they can be very expensive to maintain at the end of the planned service life.   Cities/subdivisions have to take all the costs into account.  It’s not an option for rural areas where housing density cannot justify the costs.

  18. Kjartan says:

    But even though the cost per instance is greater in the longrun for urban areas it is cheaper since the lines need less maintenance since they don’t fall down in storms and such.

    Ofcourse in rural areas where there is less population the above ground lines is the only way to go and we use those here too but the masts holding the lines here don’t fall down even though the wind is in excess of 45 meter per second (101 miles per hour) most lines above ground here have had at most a few hours of problems since 1998

  19. JenK says:

    Yeah, underground lines don’t fall down in storms – they get damaged by idiots trying to plant trees or build fences or whatever.  Also, underground lines don’t help when the lines that feed your neighborhood are down.  My area is all underground and we were without power for 5 days.

  20. JenK says:

    Btw, it’s not just that the masts holding the power lines blow over, it’s that trees and branches falling onto the power lines. AKA the domino effect. When main roads are blocked for days by a combination of downed trees and power lines, it’s a bit hard to send crews in…

    A friend in Woodinville was relieved that one roommate had kept a landline since the storm took out their power and cable.  2 days after power was restored (3 after cable was restored) they had another tree fall and knock out the phone line.  I guess the good thing is that their phone line was run to the house separately from the power and cable?  

    Check out http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/ABPub/2006/12/15/2003479986.jpg or http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/ABPub/2006/12/15/2003479978.jpg for some graphic examples.  Or go to http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/photography/ and select one of the "after the storm" options from the "News" dropdown.

  21. Mishu says:

      State institutions are forced by law to have a certain degree of transparency. That is useful to keep them honest to the many people that depend on them. I guess that if there would be no real danger if they are not honest the people who work there would lie more and use the things they hide to do more in their personal interest and less for the public interest. Also, usually they can’t be honest and do something for their personal interest and against a public interest. Such an action would trigger quite a fast public reaction.

      Public utilities have a similar public interest they have to take care of just that they are private and have the right to hide much more so that they mantain competitive advantages. Just that they have local monopolies most of the time. You are one of their small many clients,  you can’t really negotiate a contract with them in which to ask for that transparency. If all the public utilities would be requiered to have a certain degree of transparency (checked to be respected by authorities) you should be able to understand better how your interests are served and they should’t be that much affected as everyone plays by the same rules and that is not a higly competitive market any way.

      I looked at the information offered by PSE. It is stating the obvious, insists on presenting that they worked on solving the problem and it is avoiding the response to the sensible problems either by suggesting that there could be a nice reason for what thay do(you haven’t used your imagination enough to explain in a positive way their actions), or facing you with some of the problems they encounter and asking you for solutions (we know our stuff better, just trust us). Of course, they are avoiding more easily other sensible problems because most people don’t ask them (we are not specialists in the field, we don’t really know what is relevant there).

      I do not have nothing against the power to be restored first to the companies and istutions (more people have an interest there), but I don’t like to be lied. If they would make public the reparations log that could be a good source for press to correctly evaluate the way they did the repairs.

      My best guess is that they lie, mostly by intentionally ommiting, about the causes of their wide spread and profound system failure. The last one is a much more dangerous lie because it prevents some of the problems due to which we got into that situation from being solved.

      The press behaves strange. I’ve seen press in other situations. They where much more active, searching for problems on their own, investigating, talking with independent people who understand the field and so on. Here, they had a few of very badly informed article (mostly what PSE said). Also, during the power outage they where very active in keeping people from "getting angry" (I thought that press mostly informs, not leads people).

  22. Rich Ruh says:

    This is one of those times when "complaining" actually *is* the right thing to do.  I work for a vendor of Outage Management Software (don’t blame me- Puget Sound Energy is not a customer of ours), and the whole focus of the software is in taking calls, predicting outage locations based on those calls, and managing the restorations of those incidents.  Without calls, most utilities have no way of knowing what is going on out there.

    DavidE, no, distribution lines do not go through rural areas to reach the city.  Transmission lines do, and if they go down, in all likelihood the *entire* city is out.  Transmission lines lead to neighborhood substations, and distribution lines go from the substations to your homes.  It’s these distribution lines that go down in a typical ice storm and cause you to lose power.

  23. Jon says:

    In my neighborhood, north of San Francisco, the power company offered to underground power lines if the street paid for it. My street is a less wealthy street, and nobody wanted to pay. Therefore, it would seem logical that more affluent neighborhoods, who could afford this, would be less affected and would have easier-to-restore power.

    An advantage to easily-destroyed lines however, is with telephone systems. My neighborhood in Michigan had very nice phone lines which could take DSL up to 10+ MBits. Every 5 years or so, the whole mess would come down in some huge ice storm, and be pretty much rebuilt. One of these days, fiber is going to show up automatically.

  24. mirobin says:

    In case anyone is curious, it costs over $1m to bury one mile of electrical cable.  To run the same span above ground costs ~$10k.  Buried cable also lasts half as long as an above ground span (assuming the above ground wire isn’t damaged in some fashion).

    PSE spent $50m repairing damage from the storm.  With that money, they could have buried 50 of the 10,000 miles of above ground cable they have.

    Even though above ground wires are more vulnerable to trees than buried wires, PSE would still be better off keeping the wires above ground (financially speaking) even if an event like this occured once a month.

  25. peterchen says:

    > Um… taxes too high in the city…. slow pace of restoring municipal services to rural (non-municipal-taxpaying areas)… just in case any readers missed the connection!  Any correlation?

    UUmm…. More people/repaired power line in urban areas?

    > That’s pretty crappy. Has noone heard of automated monitoring? At least then you could track things down to a neighborhood by neighborhood basis.

    GivThat’s pretty crappy. Has noone heard of automated monitoring? At least then you could track things down to a neighborhood by neighborhood basis.

    Every problem has a complex solution, and this is usually the most simple thing to implement, given unlimited resources.

    I just wonder what reactions a "Who always paid bills on time goes first" would get.

    @mirobin: Thanks for the numbers numbers :-) yet it’s surprising that buried lines wear faster than overland.

  26. Gabe says:

    For those still wondering, burying electric distribution cables underground only protects against damage from minor storms (i.e. those that knock down trees near the cables). A major storm will take out transmission lines and substations, leaving even those served by buried cables without power. Furthermore, storms that cause flooding could damage buried cables such that they take a long time to fix, while leaving overhead cables untouched.

    Indeed, the PSE link Raymond mentions does indicate that half of PSE’s customers are served by buried distribution lines. That page doesn’t indicate if they got their power restored any faster or slower, though.

  27. required says:

    "Um, people without electricity can’t check the web site."

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t own a battery powered radio either.

  28. Jim says:

    AM: > "Um, people without electricity can’t check the web site."

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t own a battery powered radio either.

    No? Pretty much everyone I know has at least one, a lot of them built into our mobile phones.

    Kjartan: Also having the lines below ground reduces the problem of electro magnetic effects of living under powerlines

    Presumably it doesn’t have quite such a dramatic effect on the problem of living over powerlines? :)

  29. Cooney says:

    peterchen:

    GivThat’s pretty crappy. Has noone heard of automated monitoring? At least then you could track things down to a neighborhood by neighborhood basis.

    Every problem has a complex solution, and this is usually the most simple thing to implement, given unlimited resources.

    What’s your beef with automated monitoring? That’s pretty damn cheap and easy to implement. Make a gadget that can verify that the wires have power and send a heartbeat. Give it a unique ID and have it go every half hour. Then just track where you put them and note what stops beeping.

  30. Inky says:

    >> In case anyone is curious, it costs over $1m to bury one mile of electrical cable.  To run the same span above ground costs ~$10k.  Buried cable also lasts half as long as an above ground span (assuming the above ground wire isn’t damaged in some fashion).

    >> PSE spent $50m repairing damage from the storm.  With that money, they could have buried 50 of the 10,000 miles of above ground cable they have.

    Where did you pull that information from? We here in the Netherlands only use underground cabling for populated areas, and above-ground cabling for really long distances (the "poles" are rather heavy steel constructions, none of those weak wooden poles). I also don’t believe that underground cables last half as long (there are FAR less conditions the cable has to deal with — the Earth stays warm longer than the air (freezing) and if insulated properly there are no issues with water, animals, etc.).

    We had a storm a week ago, with winds up to 140 km/h (more than in the Seattle storm, I think) and very heavy rainfal (I had to walk home, *sob*). Afterwards (think 6! hours later) everyone still had power (nothing power-wise damaged). It’s not that hard to build a good infrastructure, the companies just need to invest more initial money.

    (The national railways shut down operation however, and Amsterdam Central Station was closed due to damage to the building and flying building materials. They however resumed operation nation-wide 6 hours later after clearing up all the trees from the tracks and fixing the over-head power lines for trains.)

  31. Ryan says:

    "That’s pretty damn cheap and easy to implement. Make a gadget that can verify that the wires have power and send a heartbeat. Give it a unique ID and have it go every half hour. Then just track where you put them and note what stops beeping."

    How? Do you transmit the signal back through the power lines? Cell?

    And when you loose contact with one, do you call a line crew in on overtime assuming power outage, or a tech crew to fix the device that broke? (I assume these might be different skill sets)

    It’s easy until you open the box labeled "Make a gadget."

  32. James says:

    Ryan: There’s already one device which should always be present and working – the electricity meter! Companies are already deploying remotely readable meters, which signal through either the phoneline or mains wiring; all you’d need to do is poll the meters and see which ones haven’t incurred any charges. If a whole street suddenly stops using electricity completely during a storm, there’s a pretty obvious cause.

    Rather than send out any kind of truck, just call that customer to check (or one customer in the street, if it’s more than one home affected). That way, you’ll know if the power is off, or the meter’s broken (or been tampered with).

  33. mirobin says:

    required, sure you own a battery powered radio — it’s in your car.  :)

    Inky — spend some time searching google.  It shouldn’t be too hard to find a few studies on the subject.  If you look really hard you’ll probably find an article about an underground powerline repair in LA somewhere…  

    Putting electrical cable underground isn’t as simple as wrapping the wire in some insulation and burying it.

    The time it takes to "bury" the line itself is much longer than stringing an above ground wire; you have to dig a trench (with the additional manpower, time, and equipment costs).  You have to deal with terrain conditions, such rocks and water intrusion.  And any sidewalk or road you tear up needs to be repaired.

    Buried electrical equipment has no way to exhaust heat "naturally".  As you mention, the earth stays warm longer than air — it is a pretty good insulator of heat.  This requires a ventilation system that circulates air around equipment like transformers.  This increases the rate at which the equipment rusts, cutting the expected service life of equipment in half.

    High power underground lines also need to be cooled.  The systems for this are pretty complicated as well — usually involving some expensive (really expensive) inert fluid that is pumped around in a closed circuit to spread out the heat load.  The really cool ones have temperature sensors that show the temperature of the fluid at various points in the cable, which helps the electricity company to pinpoint failing/faulty portions of cable (faults usually generate more heat; ex a short).

    If you do some reading you’ll start to understand that there are a large number of unexpected complexities involved in laying underground electrical cable.  It actually surprised me when I started reading about it.

    Also bear in mind that the $1m/mile figure is highly variable (shouldn’t be hard to see why when looking at the installation requirements).  I was reading about a project to bury some cables in downtown Redmond that exceeded $3/m mile.  For cable in new developments costs also drop as you don’t have to pay costs related to repairing infrastructure.

    Underground cables are favored mostely for aethetic reasons.  They have fewer service interruptions than above ground cables (no trees falling on the lines), but those outages last longer (harder to find the fault when you can’t see it).  Total outage time between above ground and below ground cables end up being about the same, with a slight edge to buried cable if I recall correctly (and when I say slight, not nearly enough to justify the difference in cost).

  34. Cooney says:

    Ryan:

    How? Do you transmit the signal back through the power lines? Cell?

    cell is the obvious choice.

    And when you loose contact with one, do you call a line crew in on overtime assuming power outage, or a tech crew to fix the device that broke? (I assume these might be different skill sets)

    The obvious choice is to build them cheap and use a lot. If one fails, schedule a tech to evaluate it on a periodic basis. If a bunch fail at once, then dispatch a crew (unless it’s a comms failure). It’s not trivial, but it isn’t rocket surgery.

    It’s easy until you open the box labeled "Make a gadget."

    No, that box is really easy. It’s the operational issues that are hard, i.e. "how you use it".

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