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Schiff: Windstorm Was 'Test Run' for Future Disasters

Southern California Edison admits errors, and Glendale Water & Power, Pasadena Water & Power officials faced tough questions from Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) during a windstorm response hearing Thursday.

Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) cautioned locals in a public hearing Thursday that the hurricane-speed windstorms that swept the San Gabriel Valley on Nov. 30 are a test run for future disasters. 

More than $30 million in damage is estimated for the San Gabriel Valley and foothill communities, but the region did not meet the $50.3 million required by FEMA to declare disaster and collect federal funding for relief, Schiff said during a roundtable windstorm response assessment. 

Panel members included Schiff, Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard, South Pasadena Mayor Michael Cacciotti, Temple City Mayor Tom Chavez, Crescenta Valley Town Council Member Mike Claessens, Altadena Town Council Member Dr. Sandra Thomas and San Gabriel Fire Department Chief Joseph Nestor. 

Southern California Edison Responds to the Disaster

Ron Litzinger, President of Southern California Edison, admitted that communicating restoration times was often inaccurate for residents and an independent consulting firm with expertise in storm response will review Southern California Edison in a report to be made public. 

“We find that people are upset, they’re not as upset if you level with them and say, 'Look there’s massive trees down,' and they can plan for it," Litzinger said. "But if they’re told 12 to 24 hours by an automated system then they’re not going to be very happy when that doesn’t’ come true. We have a lot of improvements on that front.” 

"The storm affected nearly three quarters of our customers in the San Gabriel valley," Litzinger added.

SCE also brought outside advisors from utilities departments in hurricane prone areas to find best practices, Litzinger said. 

Crews were dispatched to hundreds of "wire down" calls in the first eight hours and had to replace about 200 poles. Thousands of mature trees were down, many across power lines, causing issues, often in the back of properties. 

No one sustained any serious injuries, Litzinger said.

Before the winds began, weather forecasts predicted strong winds in unspecified areas of the Los Angeles Basin, Litzinger said. SCE issued a press release, held a pre-storm conference call with district manager and put crews on notice.

"It was not possible to know where and what force the storms would hit," Litzinger said.

According to preliminary reports from SCE, Temple City was one of the areas hardest hit, with major area damage that required more than 240 crews to work on restoring power, Litzinger said. Crews conducted field inspections, using smart meters to pinpoint areas of damage and power outages. By the end of the outage, most began house checks. 

"On Dec. 1 we began restoration using a recently implemented policy to give top priority to wires down," Litzinger said.

Litzinger said that mutual assistance from other organizations, emergency responders and better communications could have benefited the disaster better. 

SCE officials also relied on a call center for providing timelines for restoration, along with Twitter. 

"These work well during daily operations and storms where damage is more geographically dispersed," Litzinger said; however, this was not the case with this 2011 windstorm. 

"SCE has mutual assistance agreements that allows [Edison] to call on other utilities and equipment, [we] concluded that mutual assistance would not improve the process of restoration," Litzinger said. 

Evaluating How Cities Reacted to the Windstorm

Phyllis Currie, General Manager of Pasadena Water & Power, said that starting on Nov. 30 the utility kept crews on standby.

Trees blocking access roads needed to be removed, Currie said. “Homes had structural damage. We did get mutual aid from the cities of Anaheim, Burbank and Los Angeles. Broken poles had to be removed and new poles put in place.”

Crews worked around the clock, Currie said.  

Glendale officials established an emergency website to give locals information.

“Most of Glendale at some point was affected, and it was primarily in our canyons and mountain areas where people were dramatically affected,” said Glenn Steiger, General Manager of Glendale Water & Power.

The first outages in Glendale were reported about 8:30 p.m. on Nov. 30, Steiger said. By Dec. 3 at 8:30 a.m. the last customer had power restored.

Of the 85,000 GWP customers, about 30,500 GWP customers were without power at one point, Steiger said. Some were without power for four minutes, while the longest period was 65 hours. This cost the city an estimated $500,000, he said.

Glendale’s tree-trimming program helped, although trees falling was the major problem for outages in the Glendale-area, Steiger said. 

Both Glendale and Pasadena brought in outside contractors to repair damaged tree lines and remove debris. 

Aram Benyamin, Senior Assistant General Manager of Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, told the panel that at 3 p.m. on Nov. 30 city workers started to respond to the metro area where most of the damage happened.

Highland Park and Eagle Rock were some of the neighborhoods that saw the longest outages, damage and debris removal. 

“We’ve concentrated more on social media for communicating, Twitter,” Benyamin said. “We’ve used various phone messages that worked and also has a lot of room for improvement.” 

Ellen Zunino January 14, 2012 at 01:12 AM
Steve - Edison provides the power out in the desert areas to our east that get strong winds (and whopping big thunderstorms) a lot more often than we do yet you don't see the poles blowing over and the lines snapping as often as they do here. How come?
Ellen Zunino January 14, 2012 at 01:23 AM
We have major wind events every 10 years or so. A major earthquake is another animal altogether - and, you're right, none of us are as prepared as we should be. But we do have experience with trees down, debris in the streets, poles blown over, lines down, long-term power outages and with Edison's competencies. This time the recovery system malfunctioned and for a longer period of time than any of us expected based on our prior experience.
Rob Roberts January 14, 2012 at 01:25 AM
Ellen I have a place in the desert as well and there is much less above ground poles and they are not overloaded as the ones here were. We still do have power outages from winds occasionally but nothing lasts two weeks.
Nicole Charky January 14, 2012 at 11:45 PM
Will anyone head over to the meeting on Jan. 26 in Temple City? What would you say to Southern California Edison and the California Public Utilities Commission? Here's the Patch article about it: http://patch.com/A-qjhc
TRT January 16, 2012 at 06:21 AM
All said and done, it is time to make sure that you learn about and prepare for "the big one". Not only the earthquake... also all other disasters that can occur here in our woods. We, the public, are not ready for them.... Utility companies, FEMA, State, etc. cannot help you if you do not help yourself by being prepared and having low expectations on getting help from others since it is most likely that they will need help also, may be a lot more then you.

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