POSTED ON JUNE 11, 2008:
Ice, winds--what's next, locusts?
Last week's windstorm takes PSO-AEP back to drawing board on providing customers consistent electrical service
While most people were pretty philosophical about spending weeks in the freezing dark back in December while augmented repair crews worked around the clock to bring Tulsa back out of the 19th century, all didn't mask their frustration quite so well this time around.
Tens of thousands of people experienced an abbreviated sequel to Ice Storm 2007 for a few days in the beginning of June, after a bitter, angry storm knocked out the electricity throughout the city of Tulsa once again.
It started Saturday morning, then wrapped up Sunday, the first day of June, thrashing Tulsa with 70-mph winds and barrages of lighting and hail, as readers may recall.
Andrea Chancellor, spokesperson for the American Service Power-Public Service Company of Oklahoma, told UTW that about 68,000 customers lost power during the height of the recent storm, compared to the approximately 250,000 in December.
Electricity was restored to only about 23,000 customers by Sunday night, and to about 52,000 by Monday night.
Chancellor said all but about 200 were restored by Tuesday night, with the rest plugged back in by noon on Wednesday.
Because such severe and volatile weather is a spring and summer-time occurrence here in Oklahoma, though, some people are wondering why such a massive power outage resulted from the latest spate of activity, and a few contacted UTW to ask, essentially, "What the hell is PSO doing? Or not doing," from among the more proactive.
For instance, some questioned if the grid were more vulnerable as a result of quick fixes made in December, which were meant to restore power quickly, but weren't meant to last.
Chancellor refuted that notion, though.
"After a storm, we go back and fix the quick fixes," she said.
"After a storm is over and we have our customers' power restored, part of our work is to go back and fix some of the areas that we moved through pretty quickly. And we'll be doing that this time as well," she continued.
Chancellor said PSO followed the same procedure after the December ice storm.
"The only thing I can think that might have been left were the dangling limbs that had not been picked up, or had not yet fallen," she said.
Actually residents of a section of the Florence Park neighborhood were among the last dozen or so customers whose power was restored last Wednesday. One customer told Urban Tulsa Weekly that after repeated calls to the PSO holding company's phone bank, contact with a live service rep was established. The customer asked when the area's power would be restored, giving the service rep the requisite address.
The customer was told that PSO-AEP had restored power to that area of town two days ago.
"Well, that's a surprise to our family, because we have been without power since Sunday at noon," the customer replied.
The customer asked as what time the power was restored at her location and the rep checked, only to honestly reply there there was not time logged, meaning there was no certainty that the power was restored.
Persistence on the part of the service rep revealed that in fact that section of Florence Park had not been restored afterall, and that she would note it and request a crew be sent out.
Often Midtown customers complain that theirs is the block or neighborhood that always seems to be the first to lose power, and the last to have it restored, so Chancellor was asked about it.
"I would guess that every customer, at some point, feels like they are the first to be impacted by a storm, and they seem to always be the last. It seems to be that everyone has that feeling, especially if it's an extended outage, where you've been through several days of cold and ice, or several days without air-conditioning. You look around and think, 'I'm being overlooked. Where is everyone?'" she answered.
But, the only factor determining which part of town will be the first to lose power is out of PSO's control. It all just depends on where the storm travels, where the strongest wind gusts blow, and where the lightning strikes, and Mother Nature is no respecter of neighborhoods or socio-economic status.
The Florence Park customer further went on to say that when she heard tree trimming on the block behind her house, she alerted her husband who went to inquire. He learned that there was a tree fallen onto a line that was deemed the problem.
When the limbs were removed, the PSO-AEP contractor, a group from southeastern Oklahoma, came later that afternoon found a fuse needed to be replaced. Once it had, power was restored.
The customer told UTW the line crew said it often happens, ever since PSO was acquired by AEP that communications aren't what they used to be. The lineman further added that he was part of a crew that was in the neighborhood a couple days before and learned from customers a block down that their power was still out.
Had his crew been able to investigate on their own, the power would have been restored at that time.
"That's just the way it is these days," the lineman, who asked not to be identified, said. "If we were just let alone to repair obvious things we encounter in the field, I think the customers would be better off. We have to take our orders. I guess they have a plan."
Interestingly, the day after power was restored to this section of Florence Park, a tree-trimming contractor for PSO-AEP, Asplundh, came through to clear the power line easement of tree limbs that had been a problem in the area for at least a dozen years, residents said.
However, Chancellor said there might be something to perceptions that midtown is more susceptible to outages than other parts of the city.
"That's certainly the oldest part of the community, and it's the most populated, and it's also the most overgrown with trees, and since it's an older area of town, it has the old overhead distribution system, with lots of overhead lines," she said.
So, if it seems that midtown neighborhoods seem to bear the brunt of a storm's fury, at least in regard to loss of electricity, it's because of the predominance of above-ground power lines, which are more susceptible to weather damage than buried lines, and the prevalence of trees.
At least one customer in the Florence Park area suggested she thought the electric company was holding out on some service repairs to Midtown's typically politically active customers to underline the need for buried line.
But, the PSO rep said the latest outages weren't concentrated in any particular areas of Tulsa more than others.
"This was certainly a freakish weather pattern. When you've got hurricane-like winds inland, in Oklahoma, when we're far away from the ocean, it certainly is a surprise to all of us," Chancellor said.
"The wind pulled up hundred-year-old trees out of the ground and whipped them across power lines and into the equipment, blew down limbs that had already been damaged during the December ice storm and took those down with it and blew electrical lines down all across the city," she added.
"The wind path and the lightning path was so widespread, it pretty much touched all of Tulsa--it was every neighborhood in Tulsa, pretty much, and mostly in Tulsa," Chancellor said.
"It was basically a storm that hovered right over Tulsa and did most of its damage in the Tulsa area," she also.
"When you've got hurricane-force winds coming through an urban forest like we have, there are very few trees not touched by this," Chancellor added.
Interestingly, the urban forest as a lot fewer limbs and wind resistance than it had pre-December 2007, so the argument rings hollow to customers in Midtown who continually suffer recurrent outages.
Regarding restoration of power, though, she said midtown is likely to have been restored earlier than other parts of the city, since it's more densely populated.
Chancellor said there is no neighborhood-specific plan or policy for who gets plugged back in first, but repair crews are equally divided across the city, and work to get the largest clusters of customers restored first, focusing on those repairs that will affect the most people the soonest.
For instance, if several neighborhoods are affected by one downed power line, crews will repair that line before they'll repair damage affecting only a handful of customers.
"Someone anxiously awaiting power looks around and says, 'I don't see a truck. I don't see any workers. Nothing's happening in my area,' but it's happening down the street, or around the corner, or it's back up where the circuitry is at the facility," said Chancellor.
Along with the most densely populated areas, she said repair crews also prioritize nursing and medical facilities, schools and areas crucial to the city's infrastructure.
Chancellor also said there are a couple of things Tulsans can do, or not do, rather, to expedite the restoration of their power.
"A lot of times, a customer will think, 'If I go out and remove the downed trees, or remove the debris, that will help,' if it's been a huge storm, likely it will have brought down power lines, and those lines are entangled in trees or in ice or brush, and you can't see them, so we do not advise customers to go out after a storm and clear away debris. That's when there could be danger. The lines could still be hot, or if they're not, it could come back on while people are removing trees," she said.
"So, we ask our customers to remain patient and wait for us or the city crews to remove the trees," she added.
Medical experts agree.
Tina Wells, spokesperson for the Emergency Medical Services Authority in Tulsa, said there were two people injured by downed power lines by trying to remove debris, and two more injured by branches.
Chancellor also advises people to call PSO to report outages.
"We have a customer call-in center here in Tulsa. There are a lot of folks who think the calls are not answered in Tulsa, but they are answered in Tulsa," she said.
Of course, in massive outages like those recently experienced, there's a likelihood that customers will be placed on hold for a few minutes, but Chancellor pointed out that that's actually a good thing, since PSO plays messages informing customers of how extensive the outage is and how much time they can expect to pass before it's restored.
Speaking for the thousands of customers who were left on hold or told to leave a message, a Florence Park neighborhood resident said. "If I were able to talk to a real person, even if I felt neglected, I think the importance is that my particular situation could be addressed.
"When you leave service up to machines and voice mail, you take a human step out of the process and it is easy to neglect real needs," she said.
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