Sunday, December 17, 2006

Winter Windstorm Aftermath

It was no Hurricane Katrina, but the worst winter storm in more than a decade hit us last Thursday evening, eventually turning out the lights on more than 1.5 million people in the Pacific Northwest.

You don't realize how much modern society depends upon electricity until you are forced to do without it for several days. It looks like our power won't be on until at least tomorrow (Monday) and perhaps even Tuesday, and many people have been told that it will be until after Christmas. We who are without power are not the unluckiest ones; several people were killed by falling trees.

The picture to the left shows a house in our subdivision that was hit by a falling tree. Luckily, no one was hurt but the house was extensively damaged. The woman who lived there with her family had arranged to have the remaining trees on her lot removed. She told me that the falling tree had hit her children's rooms and scared everyone to death, and that she was cutting every tree on their lot down. "It's going to look like a desert." I can't say that I blame her.

Why do so many trees fall? The Pacific Northwest's ubiquitous evergreen is the fir tree, and these trees have evolved to survive in thickly-timbered forests. The root systems of these trees goes maybe a foot into the ground, but spreads out to the diameter of the widest limbs... wide but shallow. Fir trees survive windstorms because a grove of them have interlocking roots so each helps support the other. However, all bets are off when people come along and thin out the trees in order to put things like houses and roads and powerline right-of-ways.

The reason we are without power for so long is shown, to the right. The high voltage feeder lines that run into the area substation were knocked out by several falling trees in a quarter-mile stretch. The damage was extensive; a couple of poles will need to be replaced and several of the feedlines will need to be re-rigged. This will take a couple of days and only started this morning.

The strategy for coping with widespread power outages is to go for effectiveness... make the quick fixes that will restore power to the most people with the least amount of work. The harder problems, or those that affect fewer people, are handled later.

Our problem is a time-consuming mess, and affects a few thousand people, so it had to wait while the easier or more wide-reaching problems were taken care of first.

Even though this is an inconvenience, it does point out some things I need to add to the emergency kit. The number one item is going to be a generator, followed by an electric cooler. The food in the fridge was the first thing to go; opening the door on Friday morning quickly let the cold air out and the milk spoiled by the evening. We have natural gas, but the furnace is useless without the blower motor, so the second thing is to get an electrician to set up the breaker panel so we can run a few things off of the generator. It would be nice to be able to do a couple loads of laundry, or run the dishwasher, or watch the television, and we don't need to do everything at once.

This was a good wake-up call, for those of us who are only inconvenienced. My condolences go out to those who fared worse.