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Lessons learned by Avista following 2015 windstorm

<p>It began around 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon. By midnight, it was over, leaving behind even more damage than the infamous ice storm in 1996. </p>

Whitney Ward

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SPOKANE, Wash. – It will be a day that Spokane talks about for years to come. November 17, 2015. Hurricane-force winds, close to 80 miles an hour. Thousands in the dark.

It began around 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon. By midnight, it was over, leaving behind even more damage than the infamous ice storm in 1996.

In the immediate aftermath, we talked with Avista Utilities Vice President of Operations, Heather Rosentrater. She took us on a tour of one of the hardest hit neighborhoods on Spokane’s South Hill.

Thursday marks one year since that storm and when we spoke with Rosentrater again, we were curious about the lessons Avista learned after their system was stretched beyond its limit.

“There’s always opportunities to communicate better,” she said. “I think we did a great job as a community with that kind of coordinated communication.”

Rosentrater added they are always looking for ways to get more information to their customers.

Information – or lack thereof – was one of the sharpest criticisms in the days immediately after the windstorm. Countless customers said Avista’s online outage map gave only vague information about when the power would be back on – sometimes saying the same generic thing for days.

Since the storm, Avista has rolled out a new app (for iTunes and Google Play), hoping to make it even easier to get specific information to customers as quickly as possible.

“We know when they’re out of power all they want to know is ‘when am I going to get my power back?’ and so we’ve put a lot of work into being able to communicate that to our customers,” Rosentrater said.

She said the app was always part of the plan for them, but the storm definitely reinforced the importance of having it.

There was also plenty of frustration for neighbors who watched others get electricity around them, while they waited in the cold and the dark for days. Eventually, there were more than 130 Avista crews on the ground working to restore electricity. Many of them did not get to Spokane until days after the storm – another criticism that had countless people wondering why Avista was not more prepared.

“I think we are always trying to be prudent with the number of resources we’re bringing in and those costs,” Rosentrater said.

“One of those challenges was, it was a region-wide storm. It wasn’t just located in our service territory,” she said.

That means the support Avista normally would have got from the coast or from Idaho and Montana did not come – because they were dealing with their own issues. One of the biggest resources Avista said they received was from down in California. They said they have never before had to bring crews in from that far away.

Rosenstrater said they had a meeting late in the day where they started to realize the storm was going to be bad.

“We started that meeting with 10,000 customers out – which is a large number,” she said. “And it ramped up, and ramped up, and every ten minutes, that number would update. We were over 100,000 when we were done with that meeting.”

At its peak, more than 180,000 customers were in the dark. For many, it would be more than a week in sub-freezing temperatures, before the power was restored.

Could they have gone faster? Rosenstrater said no.

“Given the resources that we had at the time, I don’t see how we could have,” she said.

She said Avista did learn a lot – many of the areas of improvement they have identified since the storm are now part of their official training process.

“If we had a large storm like that, more recently than 20 years ago, I think we would have had the benefit of that, and had some of these processes already lined out,” she said.

So what will it take to do it differently, faster, and be better?

“It’s something we definitely want to continue to improve,” she said.

It took almost the entire year for Avista to complete permanent repairs on its infrastructure.

"I think, after the fact, you can always improve, and that's exactly what we're committed to doing," she said.