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Edison Officials: 'We Got Taught a Lesson'

Four Southern California Edison officials attended Tuesday's Altadena Town Council to speak about the utility's response to the Nov. 30 wind storm.

Southern California Edison official Walt Johnson repeated a now-common refrain Tuesday when describing the Nov. 30 windstorms: In his decades in the power business he has never seen a wind event like the one last month that downed more than 200 power poles and knocked out power for more than 400,000 people.

But Johnson also explained some of the reasons why Edison was so long to turn the power back on and admitted that the utility simply never had conceived of a scenario as bad as the one on Nov. 30.

"We got taught a lesson," Johnson said in describing the utility's response.

The discussion between Edison officials and Town Council members covered topics such as why the utility took nearly a week to turn all power back on, problems with the Edison customer call center and why there were so few crews up in Altadena in the first few days after the storms.

The Delayed Response

Johnson, who is a ranking official in the utility's Power and Distribution department, took personal responsibility for delaying the time the power got turned back on by 12 to 18 hours.

The reason, he said, was an excess of caution about live wires.  Following the storms, so many wires were down that he was hesitant about re-energizing them, which would have brought power back on for some of the people who were out and helped speed up the process of turning it back on for others.

However, Johnson said, his concern was that by turning the power back on, any downed wires would also become hazardous to people in the area.  That was a good reason to not turn it back on right away. But, in retrospect, Johnson said, he waited too long to start the process out of fear that someone could get hurt.

Communications

Town Council member Diane Marcussen relayed her own problems with the utility's communication center--she had a tree down in her backyard that brought down a wire, and she was trying to get Edison to come out and deal with it.

Marcussen said she felt the call center staff "had no idea" what to tell her and told the Edison officials that they should take it as an opportunity to retrain the call center staff with better scripting and more useful information.

One of the two members of the public who spoke at the meeting also relayed similar concerns about the staff, referring to them as "insensitive."

Johnson acknowledged that many have criticized the call center staff and said the utility is hoping to learn from the experience.  He also said he thought an idea suggested by County Supervisor Michael Antonovich--of having staff out on the streets communicating directly with people--has merit.

The Crew Priorities

Johnson also explained that the reason people saw so few crews out on the streets of Altadena the first couple of days is that the crews that would normally be able to deal with localized power outages were essentially not equipped to deal with the level of problems that cities were facing.

Because so many poles were downed between power substations and people's homes, fixing localized downed wire and pole problems would not have solved the problem, Johnson said.

The utility instead worked out from the substations replacing poles and wires as they followed the lines out.  However, their regular utility trucks don't carry the kind of replacement equipment that was needed for the job, so the first few days were consumed by assessment teams looking at areas to figure out what equipment was needed and then calling crews out to the site. 

Poles and other equipment had to be moved out of storage and brought to each site, making the process very slow, Johnson said.

With major lines downed, those were prioritized over smaller lines in residential neighborhoods, he added.

In addition, Edison faced tough decisions about when to deploy crews, which are limited to 24 hours of consecutive work.  On Thursday, Edison chose to hold off on deploying some crews because the weather forecast was for another severe windstorm on Thursday night, Johnson said.

Edison officials were concerned that if they deployed the maximum number of crews Thursday, all the progress they made could have been wiped out by the second storm, and with crews then having worked 24 hours, Edison could have found itself with manpower shortages on the critical second day.

However, as Johnson noted, that second wind event never happened.

Solutions

Edison has brought in two consultants from parts of the country more accustomed to major wind storms--one from Alabama, one from Florida--to consult and teach the utility lessons on how to deal with hurricane force winds.

One consequence of this type of wind was that the outages were concentrated in a very small area: 400 square miles, according to Johnson.  That was something the utility did not anticipate, but is very common with tornadoes.

Ben Wong, the director of local public affairs for the utility, said that Edison will also be joining the county's Coordinated Agency Recovery Effort (CARE) team, which is an inter-agency government disaster response team that coordinates to handle emergency response and provide information to residents. 

The utility is also conducting a review of its response to the storms, as is the county's CEO office and also the California Public Utilities Commission.

Wong said the utility would look at its communication strategy as well.  He noted that Edison's online outage map, with its estimated restoration times, was not accurate during the crisis.  He said that in normal times the map tends to be accurate, but with so many outages and such extensive damage, the map was not reliable.

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lonnie fehr December 22, 2011 at 05:18 PM
playing it safe ... bright side there was no fires , strong winds behind a fire not pretty ,,
Brian December 22, 2011 at 09:36 PM
It was amazing to see how many people in East Altadena didn't have generator power after the wind on Nov 30 - Dec 5th. I drove around the area from New York Drive up North to Loma Alta Drive and from Allen over to Lake Ave in various neighborhoods and noticed only five homes with power / lights on during the course of two nights driving. In any kind of big disaster such as a major Earthquake where power AND water could be off for weeks, perhaps, it is worth mentioning to be prepared with extra food, water, batteries, fuel and generator power for at least a couple of weeks.

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