Restoring Service After The Storm
Remembering Douglas County’s Snowmageddon – 1 year later
By Jim Teece
On February 24th, 2019, a snowstorm started around 1:30 pm. Keith Brooks had some texts with Phil Bigler, his Assistant General Manager and right-hand man. Keith sent some concern about the storm and Phil replied with some reassuring texts about the temperature being too high and that rain was forecasted and not to worry.
Keith had just taken the job as General Manager at the Douglas Electric Cooperative 14 months prior. He worked for the Kootenai Electric Cooperative in Hayden, Idaho for almost 22 years prior to that and had experience as a field engineer, GIS Analyst, IT manager and moved his way up to Assistant General manager before leaving for the opportunity to run the operation in Douglas County.
An electric Cooperative is a non-profit version of the electric company. They exist in rural areas all across the country and were created by the communities they serve to bring electricity to the community. In 2019 there were 900 Electric Cooperatives serving 40 million Americans.
West Douglas Electric Cooperative began supplying power to 209 members in 1939 and merged with North Douglas Electric Cooperative supplying power to 125 members in 1942 to form the Douglas Electric Cooperative.
Today the cooperative has 9,014 Services (Meters). These members own and manage the co-op and receive electricity at a reduced rate when compared to other communities (no profit).
The co-op gets it’s power from Bonneville and Pacific Power and redistributes it to their members.
Members are made up of small businesses, rural municipalities, and people’s homes and farms.
This was his first storm of the year and he was right to be worried about it.
Keith has an app on his phone that shows him the service status of his customers. At 4:23 pm the first pole was down. By 11:39 PM 100% of his customers were offline. Bonneville & Pacific Power also lost power and they feed all of the co-op substations as well as hundreds of thousands of other customers.
In the end 407 poles were down and it took weeks to restore service.
Welcome to Roseburg Keith.
In 2015, a drought in the area dried out the capillaries in the trees and most died or became very fragile. As the wet snow accumulated, the weight of it would bring the tree down. Trees would hit other trees and in many cases, the domino effect would happen.
Rural areas are served by overhead electricity. It’s the most cost-effective way to distribute power and internet. When the trees came down next to a road, most of the time they would snap the electric line on their way down. Many trees would weigh the wire down and pull on power poles and snap them as well.
Keith called this the 81-year storm because a storm like this hasn’t happened for 81 years. In fact the co-op has never had 100% of its members offline in its history. This was unprecedented.
In the end, they reported that over 2,200 square miles of wire were affected. The damage was greater than 400 broken poles with over 105 miles of wire on the ground and more than 300 poles standing with damage.
Keith had to act fast and manage the restoration process.
The co-op has 35 full-time employees. How do you make sure your people are safe and accounted for and bring in help? Over 100 linemen were brought in from other areas all across the nation to help out. This created logistical problems as well. How do you house 100 workers that are on their way in? How do you feed everyone? How do you have the inventory you need to successfully rebuild. Poles, wire and other parts are required for a massive rebuild like this.
They averaged 17 hour days for 27 days and the co-op recorded more overtime during that period then it had in the 10 years prior.
It took Pacific Power and Bonneville over 3 days to get power restored back to the sub-stations. The roads were clogged with trees. A state of emergency was declared and the Douglas Forest Protective Association (DFPA) activated chainsaws to come in and help clear roads.
It was a logistical nightmare but Keith was ready.
He had enough cash reserve and foresight to know that this was a FEMA scale event that required deep documentation and the methodical mindset to breakdown the magnitude of the problem and deal with the logistical nightmare in front of him.
All while they maintained open communication channels with their customers and the communities they served.
At one point 4 linemen were stuck on the highway for 24 hours, sleeping on the floorboards of their truck for safety, in case another tree came down on them while they slept.
The storm caused $30,000,000 damage in 5 counties in the state and $10,000,000 of that was in Douglas County.
Another interesting fact about the co-op is that they own a for-profit internet provider, Douglas Fast Net (DFN).
Todd Way is the CEO and GM at DFN. He grew up in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, graduated from PHHS and then went to Oregon State (CEM 94′ MBA 95′).
Douglas Fast Net supplies high-speed internet via fiber to all of Douglas county and beyond. They are not only partners with the co-op but they were affected as well. When a tree takes down a pole, the electricity and the internet are both affected.
Many times, the fiber survives the fall. It works even though it’s laying on the ground. It’s not ideal, but it works. The part that doesn’t work are the switches and equipment used to connect the fiber to the internet. The batteries that keep equipment going only run a few hours.
The generators will run until they run out of fuel and you cant get to the generator to refuel it if the roads are closed. So eventually the internet goes down as well. There is nothing you can do.
Cell towers also failed. Rectifiers melted. Buildings with equipment in them collapsed by the weight of a falling tree.
Todd supported Keith by letting him know he had trucks and people that can help. Todd even created a daycare center for all of the co-op employees and DFN employees that had children. The schools were closed so parents needed to stay home to take care of the kids. Todd created an Adhoc daycare center which allowed the employees to get back to work.
During the interview, Todd told story after story about the people in the community doing what they could to help.
In the end, they did it. They restored 100% of their customer’s service. It was hard. It was exhausting. Customers understood for a while but they got frustrated as well.
Many lessons were learned. DFN now has onsite fuel storage, because they couldn’t get fuel without power during the outage.
They learned a lot, especially about their people, their community and themselves.
No one wants to have to go through an outage of service to 100% of your customers for any period of time, especially an extended one, but it happened in Douglas County and they survived it, together.
Jim Teece owns Project A as well as Ashland Home Net, Rogue Broadband and is a partner in Art Authority and Co-Publisher of the Southern Oregon Business Journal. JimTeece.com
Remembering Douglas County’s Snowmageddon – 1 year later.