Borough, HEA say response adequate

Outage reaction draws criticism

Posted: Sunday, January 06, 2002

HOMER -- As the weather mellowed last week, most southern Kenai Peninsula residents began to recuperate from an extended power outage that left some without heat for a week.

While some applauded the around-the-clock response from linemen, others questioned the response by Homer Electric Association, the Borough Office of Emergency Management and the Red Cross, saying it wasn't quick or complete enough.

Debra Leisek, an Anchor Point resident, lost power with about 2,000 other people on the peninsula as the Dec. 22 storm gusted with gale-force winds. Leisek said she got a recording that night and the next 10 to 20 times she called over the following five days before finally speaking to an HEA representative.

Meanwhile, Leisek's husband finally dealt with the power lines hanging two feet over her driveway himself, throwing boards over the lines so they could get out.

"Their communication was very poor," Leisek said. "They should have been calling us. We should have gotten a real voice on the phone."

Leisek said she did receive calls back from HEA before Dec. 26, but they were automated calls that came through in the middle of the night asking her to "press one if you are still out of power."

According to HEA spokesperson Joe Gallagher, stories like Leisek's are cause for concern.

"We try to make every effort to talk in person with people who have an outage," Gallagher said. "In a situation like the one we just went through, sometimes, because of the sheer number of calls we were dealing with, that didn't happen. It's something we try to avoid and something we really try to correct."

Gallagher said every office staff member at HEA was handling calls as soon as the power outage began.

"Every effort is made to have a live person call back," Gallagher said.

Though she and her husband were able to tend to their animals and Griner Avenue home during the power outage, Leisek said more information about how long the power was expected to be out would have been helpful.

"We are used to the power going out" for shorter periods of time, she said. "They should have told us it was going to be out longer. I would have done something to save my food in my freezer."

Gallagher said initially HEA didn't realize the outage would continue for so long. Once linemen saw the extent of the damage, HEA tried to relay that information to the people, Gallagher said.

"The other problem was that we incurred additional outages after the initial storm, forcing us to spread our crews around the entire peninsula and setting us back as far as when we could fix it all up," he said.

Leisek also said she was concerned about others in more remote areas who might have been unable to get help.

"My thing is, what about the older people. We were able to do what we needed to do to survive, but what if somebody was up (in a remote area) for all those days without power," she said.

Though the Red Cross did provide hotel rooms when they found people in need, Leisek takes issue with the fact that no one announced on the radio that rooms were offered, or at least to give people some indication that help was available.

"I would never have thought of calling for help," Leisek said.

According to Debra Holle, Red Cross director for the peninsula, the Red Cross is responsible for providing shelter and food to those in an emergency situation, but is not responsible for finding those people.

"It's your responsibility to call the Red Cross," Holle said. "It's the response of the needy individual to seek out help. We don't go out and knock on doors."

Holle said the Red Cross coordinated with HEA, and people were being asked whether they had any immediate needs when HEA staff called them back.

"We were confident that HEA knew which families were without power," she said. "We didn't feel the need to put out an open invitation. These people knew who they were."

Most of the hundreds of people in the Homer area who had extended power outages beyond Christmas Day were able to make due on their own, Gallagher said, but 13 families took rooms at the Bidarka Inn when they were offered.

By the night of Thursday, Dec. 27, the Red Cross made the switch from paying for hotel rooms to setting up a shelter at the Homer Middle School. Holle said the Homer location for the shelter was chosen instead of Chapman Elementary School in Anchor Point because the facilities were better suited to providing for adults and children.

Many of those families had power restored by the evening of Dec. 29, Gallagher said.

Volunteers at the Red Cross shelter served dinner to around 15 people Dec. 27, but none stayed the night on the cots the Red Cross provided. The shelter stayed open through noon Saturday, but no one stayed overnight.

Some critics of the way the power outage emergency was handled, including Bob Clutts, owner of the Anchor River Inn, also pointed a finger at the borough's Office of Emergency Management.

The borough office took on a role as a coordinator during the outage, according to spokesperson Jan Henry, and he said the situation was handled properly.

"We felt the communication (with those without power) was adequate," he said. "We were working closely with Homer Electric and felt the coordination was adequate."

He said in emergency situations where multiple borough agencies are required, the office sets up an incident command system, but "this was not one of those situations."

"People may not have a realistic appreciation of the resources available," Henry said. "Everyone is welcome to criticize what they want, but I don't think there was a problem."

Gallagher said HEA is continuing to work on clearing power lines off dead trees on the lower peninsula and has completed many line-clearing projects on the Sterling Highway and in the East End Road area. The Old Sterling Highway and the North Fork Road line-clearing projects are starting in coming months, he said.

While all three agencies involved said they planned to review their responses and look for opportunities to improve, Gallagher said the magnitude of the storm was a big factor.

"I think the combination of the severity and extent of the damage combined with the weather linemen were working in, combined with the fact that is was Christmas, left us with a pretty unique situation on our hands," he said.

Carey James is a reporter for the Homer News.

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