Aftermath: Snow & ice storm revealed neighborhood vulnerabilities
On the dark and stormy night of Sunday, February 14th, at 8 p.m., a huge fiery explosion burst into the sky in the Woodstock neighborhood. Tree limbs made brittle from a summer of heat and wildfire smoke had snapped off under the weight of ice and snow. As the limbs fell across power lines and upon a power transformer at Ramona Street and S.E. 42nd Avenue, neighbors from across the street contacted Mick and Hollie Scanlan to tell them that wires were touching and sparking near their house. A power surge accompanying the transformer explosion had in an instant done quite a bit of collateral damage to nearby home wiring and applainces, as later became apparent.
Scanlan called 9-1-1, and a fire engine from Woodstock Fire Station 25 eventually responded and roped off the street. They were told they'd had to wait for PGE. But, since many other Inner Southeast Portland houses and neighborhoods were also thrown into darkness from fallen wires on that night, PGE personnel did not arrive until 22 hours later. And even then, a PGE lineman said this wait for power restoration was "relatively short", because residences near businesses that have lost power are prioritized.
When power returned to Ramona Street and the surrounding blocks Monday evening, on February 15 at 7:15 p.m., the Scanlan home did not have power immediately. "So I reset the circuit breaker, and the lights came on," Mick told THE BEE. "Hollie went into the kitchen and noticed the night light by the back door was out, so she re-set the GFI switch on the outlet – and smoke and flames came out!"
This time when they called 911, a fire engine arrived within ten minutes. Scanlan reported, "They evaluated the circuit breakers, and when they flipped the kitchen switch, the outlet flamed again. They turned the breaker off, disconnected the wires to the outlet, inspected behind the outlet in the wall, and told us to call an electrician in the morning." In spite of the Scanlan house having been built only 12 years ago with new wiring, evidently the GFI outlet had become overtaxed in the surge of electricity when the transformer on the street failed. As a result of that power surge, the washer, dryer, oven, cooktop stove, microwave, and dishwasher were also "fried", and need replacement. Fortunately, Scanlan's insurance from his past military service will cover replacement of all appliances, GFI outlets, and the furnace circuit board.
As many residents in the city have discovered since the ice storm, appliances are in short supply during the pandemic, and the Scanlans say some of them will not be available for up to two months. There may also be damage to the compressor of their air conditioning unit that may have to be replaced. One precaution residents can take to minimize such collateral damage is to order a "whole house surge protector" from PGE; it is mounted on the electrical meter, costs a couple of hundred dollars, and has to be replaced if it is destroyed by a surge – but that's cheaper than replacing all the electrical appliances and equipment in a house.
The Scanlans say they are thankful for the vigilant and helpful neighbors who came over with a chainsaw on Tuesday morning, February 16, to cut up huge branches to clear their driveway. "Oure thanks to our neighbors, the awesome fire department, and hard-working crews at PGE," remarked Mick.
A week later, Damon Hiser, raised in Woodstock and now a 51 year-old PGE journeyman lineman and chairman of PGE's in-house apprentice committee, came out to inspect the wires. When asked how many hours PGE crews had been working during and after the storm, he said, "16 to 18 hour shifts, for 14 days straight." Power was out for many days for some people because of the extremely widespread damage. "It started with a snow storm and high winds, and ended up with an ice storm adding thick ice to our lines and trees."
Hiser, who has been at PGE for 33 years, remarked that prevention of such incidents in future storms will require that weak tall trees, and branches over wires will have to be taken out or trimmed extensively – even more so than is routinely done by contractors from Asplundh.
Hiser explained that underground wires are not a solution not only because of the very high cost involved, but because when something does goes wrong, utility workers have to dig down into streets to remedy the problem.
PGE workers said this storm had been taxing, and such work is not for the faint of heart. Utility workers are well paid for their work, but they have to love it, to do it.
An online article in a local newspaper three years ago quoted Hiser as saying, "When it's dark and rainy and snowy, you have to want to be out there. Within a few months, you find out if a guy is developing that love of being out there in any conditions. It can't be about just chasing a paycheck."
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