HEA crews work over weekend to restore power after windstorm

Service is restored but customers may still notice trees down over power lines

Homer Electric Association over the weekend received thousands of calls from Kenai Peninsula customers reporting power outages from approximately Clam Gulch to the northern reach of the service area in Nikiski and Sterling.

Barry Jackman, superintendent of distribution dispatch and operations for Homer Electric Association, with Keri-Ann Baker, director of member relations, talked to the Homer News about the repairs needed to address downed power lines and power issues that still remained to be assessed and addressed as of Monday.

High winds picked up slowly on Thursday evening outside of regular service hours with high winds reaching 30-40 miles an hour and gusting more than 50 miles an hour, Jackman said.

“The wind was also running in a direction HEA is not normally used to, and that’s usually when we start getting more outage reports. There were over 200 trees that needed clearing,” Jackman said.

The impact of the wind was compounded by the volume of rain the peninsula had seen over the previous week, creating ground conditions where the trees are less stable, he said. Though the company does provide mandatory ground clearage under power lines and within its utility easement, the spruce bark beetle infestation over the past few years has contributed to large number of unstable trees falling into lines from outside the right of way easement zone maintained by HEA, Jackman and Baker said.

HEA had crews working all night Thursday. Friday the weather started to look like service crews might be able to wrap things up. But, weather picked up again, and by Friday night HEA had about 9,000 customers without service. That number eventually grew to 13,000-14,00 customers without power. Outage crews needed to work all night through Friday, Jackman said.

To address the high volume of customers, HEA tried to call in contract crews but the Chugach Electric Corporation and Matanuska Valley Corporation were also experiencing a large number of outages, Jackman said.

“This weather system impacted the Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage and up through the Valley. So we were all kind of competing for contract labor,” Baker said.

The community of Homer did not have too many customers without service, but Nanwalek across the Kachemak Bay did need some attention, Jackman said. The Homer crews were called north to assist with outage restoration efforts there.

Most of the repairs had been completed as of Monday afternoon. The company was still working to identify broken meter poles, but there were no outages remaining.

“When we have an outage that is this large, when there are wires down across roads or down trees blocking access routes, the company prioritizes life and safety first and then second, restoring power. Only after that do we work on cleaning up other issues,” Baker said. “Also, in a situation this large, the company is not able to provide the same one-on-one communication to each person who calls in to make a report as we normally do.”

In order to make sure the utility company can provide members with information, HEA provides regular outage information throughout the storm event through several different communication venues. Baker provided public reports to KSRM and KBBI several times throughout the event to help keep the public informed. The company will also post information on Facebook once more than 300 people have lost power.

An outage map displays where power failures have occurred and is available at all times. When an outage is reported, even before it’s authenticated by the company, the location will be available to see on the map instantly. This can be found at www.outage.homerelectric.com.

Once things are restored, the company sends out email and phone calls to property owners. “This can be very valuable to property owners, especially post Labor Day, because there are so many with property in these regions who left Alaska for the season and may want their personal property checked on,” Baker said.

Baker also mentioned how frequently linemen and people in operation are called in to provide service, in general. The last few biggest events that needed attention happened to fall on holidays.

“I’m pretty proud of how that team responds and I’d like to make sure they receive some community awareness,” Baker said.

Jackman on Monday said the company expects to continue removing trees from the storm over the next week. If customers are still seeing trees down, it’s probably because linemen are being rotated.

“Our policy is after working 24 hours, a lineman has mandatory rest before returning to duty,” Baker said.

HEA offices were closed Monday for the Labor Day holiday but the company was working to address post outage issues through the dispatch center in Kenai.