Preparing for the worst
The region has endured one of the most trying times in memory — a 12-month period unleashing a global pandemic that induced business closures and an economic hit followed by record-setting wildfire destruction topped by a destructive, crippling ice storm.
But what if all the hardships endured over 2020-21 are just a warmup for worse things yet to come?
That's a question that PGE officials ask themselves as they continue to work on finding more sound and secure methods of staving off setbacks from future disasters. Several officials from the power company shared those thoughts with Woodburn civic leaders last month.
"We have gone through, in the past year, more events than I think we could ever care to remember, and Woodburn was uniquely at the center, particularly of the most recent historic ice storm," PGE President and CEO Maria Pope said. "Your community was hit harder than just about any other community in this state."
To illustrate her point, Pope noted that more than 17,000 PGE customers in the Woodburn area lost power for an extended period of time due to the February ice storm. Regionwide some 420,000 customers lost power — 129,000 in Marion County — some more than once, necessitating the deployment of more repair crews than PGE has dispatched in its entire 130 years.
"We brought in more crews than ever before in our history," Pope said. "We had crews from as far away as California to Montana to Alberta and British Columbia."
Pope also touched on wildfires, changing weather patterns and climate conditions, and then the pandemic on top of that. She said the hardships were exacerbated by the fact that many of those working to help repair system breakdowns were without power themselves.
The scenario has spurred the company to double-down its efforts, focus on forming partnerships and sharpen its awareness of potential disasters to come.
"The damage caused by the recent storm was unlike anything that we've seen in decades, (and) we've been in Woodburn for 130 years," PGE Director of Operations Kevin Putnam said. "It was a 40-year ice event. The restoration has been an all-hands-on-deck effort, and we appreciate working with the great communities, like the city of Woodburn."
What could be next?
PGE Director of Mitigation and Resiliency Bill Messner spoke extensively about the Cascadia subduction zone, located roughly between Vancouver Island and northern California. In 1700, the Cascadia earthquake was estimated to have registered measurements from 8.7 to 9.2 on the Richter scale.
Messner spoke about a recurrence of such a quake, noticeably using the word "when" it comes and not "if" it comes.
"We have the Cascadia event and a lot of conversation about when that happens or if that happens — we are planning for when that happens," he said.
Messner produced a slide to the Zoom-meeting viewers illustrating the Cascadia zone, along with some sobering predictions.
"It will be very significant when it does happen," he said. "I don't go over this slide to scare people; I go over it to bring up awareness."
He pointed to zones on the map marked red and reddish-brown in the western part of Oregon and explained that those colors mean the zones will have buildings that collapse. Then he cited a text box within the map and its data.
"When this event happens, the state of Oregon's resiliency plan is saying that electricity will be out from one to three months," Messner said. "Water will be out from one to 12 months. So it's an event that we have to prepare for and (develop) resilience for."
"How do we prepare?" Messner asked. "One of the things we do is we have plans. We test those plans. We write those now and we test those now. We test those not only with table-top exercises, we test them on a national level as well.
"We learn from real events as well."
Those include recent ice storms and wildfires.
He said the company also has spent money on creating a stronger, more resistant grid system.
"We've been investing for many years in the seismic hardening of our infrastructure," Messner said. "In 2019-20 we've invested over $500 million in just hardening the system."
Another part of the preparation is partnerships, which are being formed and fortified with industries, government entities and public safety networks. Part of the latter is using the National Incident Management System (NIMS) system used uniformly by fire departments, federal government, FEMA along with companies like PGE to allow for common vocabulary used to communicate in times of stress.
"We want to have these relationships developed now so that in a time of crisis we ... know who to call and we can move things very quickly and do the best we can for everybody," Messner said.
There also has been a global element where companies are trading ideas and experiences with overseas responses, such as Australia, a continent that has endured serious wildfire destruction in recent years.
Pope and Messner touched on weather and climate changes playing a role in preparation and readiness.
"The globe's weather patterns are changing, and what does that mean for us? Not only how we build our grid and maintain our grid, but what does it mean for those events that may become more intense, more extreme weather events," Messner said.
Putnam said this has prompted PGE to develop, prepare and deploy different equipment standards, while making greater use of automation and building a smarter, more integrated grid.
Included in that are design and construction modifications, such as metal poles instead of wooden poles in sensitive areas, more secure wiring, increased maintenance inspections, change of operational practices during fire season and installing their own weather stations and meteorologists.
"It's about being prepared, knowing how to respond and how to recover," Messner said.
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