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Nine days without power: My ice storm story as an EWEB customer and employee

February 05, 2024 Robyn Smith, EWEB Communications

Power poles leans after 2024 ice storm

From the moment I saw the two-story contemporary house nestled on a small plot of land in the lower McKenzie River Valley, I instantly knew it would be our first home.  

It checked all the boxes, including an abundance of old-growth trees. Towering Douglas firs, oaks with limbs outstretched, densely dressed in large leaves for shade in the summertime, and maple trees that shifted color in the fall to a collection of orange and yellow shades.  

Just over a year ago, my husband and I bought the home. We were relocating from Salem to be closer to EWEB, where I was hired as a communications specialist a year prior. So, while we were moving because of work, the location we chose was about following our dreams. 

While beautiful and peaceful, buying a home on the edge of the forest and surrounded by trees has its tradeoffs. Moving “upriver,” I knew there would be more threats to prepare for, including Mother Nature’s seasonal surprises. 

Over the summer, we prepared for the risk of wildfires. I cleared defensible space and created an evacuation plan. But even though I knew plenty about the inevitable risk of winter storms and related power outages, I wasn’t prepared for the back-to-back ice storms that hit last month. I thought, “It won’t happen this winter,” and “I’ll have another year to get things in order.” I wasn’t prepared to live for nine days without power. 

The truth for myself and many others in the community was we didn’t have another year to buy that generator or prepare our emergency kits. The storms hit, and we were stuck digging ourselves out of the devastation that followed. 

EWEB springs into action to restore power 

EWEB was prepared. Reacting to National Weather Service Alerts, EWEB stood up an emergency response system on Thursday, Jan. 11, before the storm arrived. Field crews and office staff prepared equipment, systems, and consumables. When the first storm hit on Jan. 13, EWEB crews were ready to begin making repairs to damaged equipment. 

But just as crews were gaining momentum fixing infrastructure after the first storm, they had to hunker down the first night due to unsafe conditions. They resumed restorations the following day and continued to make significant progress. But on Tuesday, Jan. 16, in the evening, a second ice storm rolled in, forcing crews to revert from fixing equipment and restoring power to making damaged equipment safe so it wouldn’t injure people. 

The second round of freezing rain slapped another layer of ice on the trees and power lines, and it was too much for the natural and man-made infrastructure to bear. Tree limbs snapped, tree trunks split down the middle, roots detached from the ground, power poles leaned, and wires fell. The thaw immediately afterward dealt another blow to electric infrastructure as tree limbs suspended by ice came crashing down. 

"This was as bad as I've seen it," said EWEB Line Crew Foreman Gary Lay, who has been with EWEB for 24 years. "I've seen different types of storms that are as devastating but in smaller areas. This covered a pretty large area." 

EWEB Line Crew Leader Gary Lay

By the morning of Wednesday, Jan. 17, outages peaked, with over 24,000 EWEB customers out of power. The second storm had erased days of progress restoring power for customers, knocking EWEB back to square one. 

“I live at the west end of Deerhorn Road, and we were without power for 11 days. Going home to no power after working 16-hour shifts wasn’t the worst experience through all of this. Because I was getting home in the dark every day, I still hadn’t seen the damage to my home until Saturday, Jan. 27, other than pictures my wife and neighbors sent me. Making sure we had fuel for the generators for the time I was at work was at times a challenge, and having an undersized generator made choosing which electric conveniences a priority and, at times, a coin toss. Having lived upriver for 18 years, 16 of which I’ve worked at EWEB, most of my neighbors were calling asking about the timeline for restoration. Just keeping tabs on my older family and neighbors was a full-time job the first few days – making sure they had generator fuel or even drinking water, or wood for their stoves that they had quit using since getting ductless or HVAC systems.  

I did a variety of jobs during the storm, including fixing water main breaks, flagging traffic, delivering meals, and cleaning off snow from around the trash and recycling areas, and common catch basins so the melting snow and ice could drain. I ran a vacuum excavation truck to make pole holes and anchor holes for overhead restoration. I filled rock bags for pole backfill, delivered parts to our crews and contract crews, and picked up damaged gear and garbage after the crews moved to other locations.  

My appreciation for my coworkers who did the same thing while also being out of power at home is hard to describe. The damages we saw to customers’ property and the roads and right of way and the dedication the field workers had to keep each other and the public safe while restoring service are remarkable. There are more heroes here than we all know, from the top to the bottom.” 

 – Aaron E., EWEB utility mechanic 

pole snapped storm 2024

Upriver restoration complicated by blocked roads and downed transmission lines  

The severe devastation in town paled in comparison to the areas upriver. Approximately 30 miles of long-distance transmission lines and 125 miles of local distribution went down in the McKenzie Valley. Critical facilities outside of Eugene, such as the Hayden Bridge Water Filtration Plant and the Carmen Smith Hydroelectric Project, lost their connections to the grid. 

Comparing storm outages over past 10 years

In the lower McKenzie Valley, EWEB had two hurdles to overcome to restore power. The first was the sheer devastation and damage from fallen trees. We relied on public agencies to remove hazard trees along roads to provide access, and we partnered with our contract crews to remove fallen trees involving or in the proximity of electrical lines.  

In order to get crews safely into the Deerhorn, Cedar Flat, and Camp Creek areas the areas had to be made safe first. Once crews were able to assess the damage, they went to work replacing several dozen damaged and leaning power poles before lines could be reconnected. 

To make matters worse, transmission lines operated by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) that feed the area also went down. Repairing transmission lines took several days, and only then could power be brought to the distribution circuits that feed homes. Once the BPA transmission lines were reenergized, EWEB was able to begin reconnecting our distribution system. 

During the first storm, I was out of town. On Jan. 14, my husband and I tried every way to get back home to no avail. From one direction, there was a leaning power pole with wires hanging down into the road. From the other direction, large trees had come down, blocking the road. 

While we were blocked out, many others were stuck in, waiting for the power to come back and hoping they had enough food, water, wood, and generator fuel to last through the recovery process. With no internet connection, many of us had minimal access to information about the response work going on around us. This was a hard truth for me to face, because it’s part of my job to ensure customers have as much information as possible. Until the ice melted enough for me to safely commute to EWEB’s operations center in West Eugene, I spent several days working from a room in a Motel 6.  

crew work on poles

Preparing for and responding to disaster 

Every employee at EWEB has a role in response and restoration after major outages. It’s crucial that every staff member – from the line workers in the field to customer service agents on the phone – can react and respond promptly, efficiently, and safely to a winter-related emergency like the one we just experienced.  

Before an emergency strikes, EWEB prepares by holding mock winter storm outage drills annually, acting out scenarios like the one we just experienced when thousands of customers lose power.  

EWEB also employs a full toolbox of "grid hardening" strategies to be prepared for a major outage event, including year-round tree trimming, replacement of aging infrastructure, routine equipment inspections for potential problems, and emergency response training. Each fall, EWEB stocks up on equipment that is commonly damaged during storms to ensure we have the needed poles, wires and other pieces on hand before storm season begins. 

When EWEB knew that the storm was coming, staff activated an Incident Command System (ICS), which is a standardized approach to incident management used by government agencies at all levels. Roles and teams were established for safety, planning, operations, logistics, interagency coordination, and public communication. Each team worked simultaneously and collaboratively to respond and resolve issues in the aftermath of the storms.  

EWEB’s response to this event was a calculated effort that allowed us to restore power for customers as quickly and safely as possible by following standard protocols and a hierarchy of repair. 

The hierarchy of repair means that, first, crews make safe any situation that poses a threat to customers, such as ensuring downed powerlines are not sparking. Second, crews assess and restore transmission lines that serve large swathes of territory. Third, crews work on restoring power feeders, which may serve hundreds of customers. 

Once that work was complete, crews worked on repairing tap lines, which typically serve a cluster of homes. These smaller repairs often take just as much time to repair as larger ones, and this extended period without power was felt by many customers during this ice storm, especially in upriver neighborhoods.  

All told, EWEB restored 37,000 service outages between the two storms. In total, 250 field and office staff, including 60 contract linemen, worked to restore power during and after the storms. 

customers restored by day storm 2024

“I live up on Deerhorn Road which was severely impacted by the storms. The damage was devastating, though luckily, there was no major damage to my home.   

I lost power on Saturday evening and was out for a total of 12 days. Sunday morning, I was activated in EWEB’s emergency response system, called ICS, but I couldn't get to work. Hundreds of trees fell across our road, and I was trapped. With the help of some neighbors, we were able to cut our way out on Monday afternoon so I could report to work as the ICS Safety Officer. I remained in town for a couple of days couch-surfing until the roads were clear enough to make the daily commute. I remained as the primary safety officer throughout the duration of ICS, working 16 hours a day and coming home to no power. 

Our crews, with the help of our mutual aid partners, got in as soon as they safely could and restored our power. While some of us were prepared, many up here were not. Losing power out here means you lose everything! And being trapped without basic needs like heat and water is a struggle and even life-threatening for some. A huge shout-out to everyone involved in this ICS event. No matter your role, you were needed, and the job couldn't have been done without you!”  

– Alyssa W., EWEB enterprise safety associate

tress cut away from a road storm 2024 

Building an electric system that is both reliable and resilient 

EWEB’s power is very reliable. In 2023, the electricity EWEB provided to customers was functioning as normal 99.44% of the time, according to EWEB’s 2023 metrics on outage occurrences and length of outages. 

The reliability of EWEB’s electric and water infrastructure is easy to take for granted when it works every time you flip the light switch or turn on the faucet. But we increasingly live in a world of worsening and unpredictable disasters: ice storms, wildfires and the specter of the Cascadia subduction zone earthquake. 

A disaster could happen at any time, and it matters how we prepare, as both a community and individuals. 

That’s why, decades ago, EWEB engineers designed a redundant electric system, building 38 substations to ensure a resilient spine for EWEB’s electric grid and an interconnected network of distribution circuits to provide redundancy and flexibility. 

Resiliency – the ability to adapt or recover quickly – is at the system’s core. 

"The flexibility provided by EWEB's past design decisions has put us in a good place to bounce back from major outage events," said Tyler Nice, EWEB electric operations manager. "We are unique and lucky in that most other systems at other utilities, serving a similar customer base, are not typically as robust and redundant as ours." 

It’s also why EWEB is dedicated to improving and replacing aging infrastructure to ensure power resiliency for years to come. For example, we are incorporating seismic resiliency into the grid to ensure it can withstand a subduction zone earthquake. 

In some areas, such as in downtown Eugene and neighborhoods on the valley floor where there are limited terrain obstructions, it makes sense to put power lines underground. There, they are protected from disasters, overhead conflicts, and the risk of interaction with people and vehicles, which can strike poles and cause outages. 

Undergrounding lines is not a cure-all for the entire system and is not feasible everywhere. During the ice storm, several underground lines experienced outages after damage occurred to transformer boxes. In some cases, underground lines can be more difficult and time consuming to repair. Undergrounding lines is not practical for some upriver areas because of the topography or rocky terrain.  

Resiliency is more than just infrastructure – more than redundant substations and hardened power poles. Resiliency is also about how we work together. EWEB staff banded together to get the job done during one of the worst storms in recent memory. And our community banded together, too. 

Restaurants donated food to emergency responders – even though many had lost days of business. Landscapers donated their time and machinery to clear trees so public schools could open sooner. People opened their homes to unknown neighbors, helping each other stay warm with fireplaces while kindling new friendships. Social media sites became places full of support, with offers for tree clearing, food, and warmth reigniting belief in the power of community. 

These stories remind us that getting to know your neighbors is not only part of feeling at home, but it’s part of emergency preparedness. 

"With the ice remaining only in memory and the bulk of restorations behind us, we now focus on the cleanup and improvement process," said Nice. "I am so proud of our team’s response and even more appreciative of the community's support through this devastating incident.” 

crews work upriver

Cleaning up the debris and preparing for the future 

Now, a few weeks past the emergency, my workdays have returned to their usual rhythm. The lights are on, the heat is running in my house and the internet is functioning as normal. 

Yet, there’s still a lot of work to be done to get my home in the McKenzie Valley back to normal. We lost several trees, including a large apple tree, that we had hoped to enjoy for years to come. I’ll have to come to terms with the fact that we only had one season to eat its big, juicy apples. Last weekend, we took several loads of limbs and debris to the free dump site at Hendrick’s landing, and that’s how weekends will be around here for a while. We’re cleaning up and making the best of an unfortunate situation. 

In the same way, EWEB staff will also be working in the weeks ahead to clean up debris and review our emergency response and restoration actions from this major outage event. Just like the historic winter storms of 2016 and 2019, this one will also be monumental in how EWEB improves operations to respond efficiently and safely to the next emergency event. 

Because if there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s that there will be a next one and it’s how we recover and prepare individually and as a community that matters most.