Peninsula outages continue

Posted: Wednesday, December 26, 2001

Just when Alaskans think they have this state figured out, it throws a curve ball as a reminder that it is far from being tamed.

Crews of Homer Electric Association linemen and families scattered around the southern Kenai Peninsula are learning their lesson well as portions of the peninsula spent Christmas without electricity more than 90 hours after first losing power shortly after 4 a.m. Saturday morning.

Late Friday night, in a storm raging with more winds at more than 90 mph, hundreds of gray beetle-killed trees were flattened taking down power lines in their fall. Many families contending with the vicious winds found themselves without light, heat or water and few have been reprieved since.

"We get dependent on all these modern miracles. This has been a good reminder that we live in a climate where you need to keep on your toes," said Kristin Lambert of Soldotna.

"I lived in Fairbanks without electricity or running water for many many years. The difference is then your house was designed for it. You were prepared."

Fortunately for Lambert, her power came on shortly after 3:30 Sunday afternoon. Those on the North Fork between Homer and Anchor Point, the Old Sterling Highway, Skyline Drive areas and in the entire Russian Old Believer Village of Nikolaevsk have not been quite so lucky.

"Today we have been able to restore power to a couple of hundred homes in the North Fork area, and we expect to pick of the Nikolaevsk village at some point today," said HEA spokesperson Joe Gallagher Tuesday afternoon. "For the most part, people are still being able to get along although there are those who we realize need help."

People in areas where the winds were strongest lost the roofs to their homes leaving them in no condition to combat the temperatures of an Alaska winter. Some families retreated to the homes of friends and relatives and those with extreme needs were put up at the Best Western Bidarka and Driftwood inns on the American Red Cross' dime.

"We are assessing them on a case-by-case basis," said Rebecca Nobel with the American Red Cross in Anchorage.

Half a dozen families were authorized to stay at the inn the first night, and by Monday night 15 had abandoned post and were taking shelter at the hotel.

By noon Christmas Day, three of the families had received word that power had been restored to their homes in the Old Sterling Highway and Skyline areas. Two went home to inspect the damage and three were waiting to see what the incoming weather had in store, said Frances Needham, front desk manager at the Bidarka.

The skeleton crew at the hotel opened up the Otter Room Grill restaurant and cooked a turkey and beef buffet for the families and HEA linemen spending their Christmas away from home.

Of the families staying at the hotel, some brought their presents with them for a make-shift Christ-mas, others went home to open gifts and one family was waiting patiently for their Christmas gift in the form of a baby, now two days overdue.

Nobel said the Red Cross would provide one more night at the hotel Tuesday, but the organization had plans to open up a shelter early this morning.

Nobel said there was good and bad points about it happening this time of year.

"Kids are out school, so it shouldn't be a problem setting up a shelter at one of the local schools," she said. "Unfortunately, shelter situations are not ideal, but it's warm, there are showers, and there is food."

The decision to open up a shelter came after news that power in the North Fork district won't be up and running for at least 72 more hours. This progress might be further impeded by a storm that began to rear up again early Christmas Day, and the National Weather Service forecast said it won't be leaving the southern peninsula any time soon.

"It really doesn't look like it's going to break at least through Wednesday," meteorologist Dan Keirns said Tuesday. "That stupid storm is going to sit out there south of the Aleutian chain and keep throwing surges of energy up around Southcentral Alaska.

The storm, centered 300 miles south of Dutch Harbor, is going to continue to bring freezing rain and winds in the 20- to 45-mph range through a big part of this week, said Keirns. While the west side of the peninsula may not see the 80 mph winds registering in Portage, its own share of the storm will hinder the 25 linemen already struggling to restore power.

Three- to four-person crews concentrated on the North Fork region, said Gallagher, while workers from Chugach Electric, Norcon and the electric union focused on other areas.

"There has been progress made," Gallagher said. "The North Fork area is difficult because of the terrain and the sheer number of trees."

A lot of those trees are the beetle-kill ones downed by the storm. HEA has spent $2 million over the past two years in an extensive tree removal program clearing beetle-kill trees from East End Road in Homer to Clam Gulch.

"Unfortunately, North Fork had not been addressed yet. This storm would have created a similar situation around the peninsula. As bad as it been, it could have been worse without previous efforts," he said.

Families in the area seemed to appreciate HEA's around-the-clock efforts to get them hooked back up to their power supplies.

"I'd like to have (power), but it's not that they are dragging their feet," said North Fork resident Jan O'Meara.

When she got up at 3:30 Monday morning to restart her kerosene stove, crews were working on a line near her house.

"When they say they are working, they aren't lying," she said. "I think they are doing the best they can."

O'Meara and her sister Betty Hunter invested in a kerosene back-up stove a few years ago and together they have been keeping it running around the clock to heat their house on the south end of North Fork. O'Meara said they bought the stove after outages became more and more frequent in the past few years such as the two outages last year that reached 12 and 13 hours apiece.

"This has broken all records," she said. "We were sort of prepared. Buying that kerosene stove was the best thing. I think a lot of people have back-up power. Most have some kind because we have been having a lot of power outages more frequently and lasting more time."

The Bacher family found itself in much the same situation as O'Meara and Hunter. The family of four was on rotations keeping the wood stove running 24 hours a day. Janet Bacher said she was managing to cook on a Coleman camp stove, so they were drinking lots of hot tea, playing board games and listening to Christmas music.

Life was essentially normal -- except for the little differences like the flickering candlelight, the different quiet a house takes on without the hum of a heater, and the prospect of Bacher using her back porch as a giant outdoor refrigerator. She and O'Meara both said Christmas would be celebrated regardless of a lit Christmas tree.

For O'Meara, Bacher and others without power, Gallagher said he was "guesstimating" HEA would have less than 300 homes without power by the end of Christmas Day. That number, however, follows the assumption that the some 300 residents of Nikolaevsk would be online by nightfall.

"This has been done in spite of extremely bad weather. Crews are not only battling conditions left by the storm but they are battling 40 mph winds, heavy rains and cold -- making a bad situation even worse," Gallagher said.

"Whatever the weather is, we will still continue to work. Hopefully the weather will give us a break and we will be able to work in better conditions, but it is likely we will be dealing with this through Friday."

Skeleton crews also were busy in the Kenai and Soldotna areas Tuesday as power flickered and went off in many homes.

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