Winds of destruction
November 24, 2008 · Updated 4:27 PM
By the time the lights went out across the Island on Thursday and began returning on Monday, more than 440 calls had been made to the city’s emergency operations center, with city staff clocking in over 14,000 man hours and inspecting nearly 60 damaged structures.
The calls started coming in as soon as trees started falling Thursday night. Many, however, came the following day as residents awoke and surveyed the damage outside their homes. Record-breaking winds plucked hundreds of trees from the Island’s landscape and tripped up power lines everywhere.
The city’s report of the calls includes gas leaks, blocked roadways, flood damages, several transformer box fires and a few close calls and minor injuries.
While extensive damage occurred in every part of the Island, maintenance crews from Puget Sound Energy and the city’s maintenance department worked all night Thursday to clear up Island Crest Way by Friday. East and West Mercer Way, however, were shut down and remained completely inaccessible in numerous locations until early Monday morning.
Despite the damage, city staff were relieved to say there were no reports from the police or fire department of serious injuries or emergency rescues. Police helped with public safety issues, such as directing traffic around maintenance crews, and firefighters responded to more than 150 calls.
According to initial estimates from Don Cole, the lead building official with the city planning department, the high winds caused an estimated $1.3 million in structural damages, not including tree removal, cleanup or disposal.
“The southwest side took the most wind,” city manager Rich Conrad said. “It was a direct hit because that’s where the winds came from.” Most of the damage, however, occurred on East Mercer Way between the southern tip and the most of it taking place between the Conrad said. “It was a direct hit because that’s where the winds came from. On East Mercer, though, there was the most damage, with most of it taking place between the south tip and the 5300 block.”
According to Susan Hempstead, a spokesperson for Puget Sound Energy, PSE spent a good part of the day on Friday resolving transmission systems, or securing the island by shutting off the power at the Island’s three substations. Two of the substations were up and running by Monday afternoon, which restored power to about two-thirds of the Island. The South end substation remained inoperable, however, and crews continued to repair downed lines.
“This really is a multiple-day storm,” Hempstead said of how long it would take to restore power on Mercer Island. “The damage there is extensive.”
Multiple crews from PSE came in over the weekend to repair lines and transmission boxes as well as fallen trees. By Monday, repair crews from the power company Southern California Edison began arriving on the Island. This extra help, Hempstead said, had doubled the number of crews working on the Island.
“Like a battle zone”
During the peak of the storm and just hours after more than an inch of rainfall drenched the region, city maintenance crews worked to remove debris and fallen trees so that PSE could reach and begin repairing down power lines.
Before the storm hit most of the city’s maintenance employees had gone home Thursday afternoon. Many were called back to work between 10:30 and 11:30 p.m., however, and all were working by early Friday morning. Those who returned right away, worked the entire night Thursday. They only had a brief break when the city called off the crews after PSE did as safety precaution during some high powered winds. As soon as the winds died down, the crews returned to work.
Hempstead said PSE and city crews spent most of the night on Thursday trying to get Island Crest Way opened so Islanders could have access on and off the Island. According to city manager Rich Conrad, PSE could have never had Island Crest Way open if it weren’t for the combined effort of both the city and PSE.
“I’ve been working since 11:30 last night and we’ve been all over the Island going from hotspot to hotspot,” said Ken Brooks, a city maintenance employee clearing debris off Island Crest Way on Friday afternoon. “We don’t know when it will all be done but it has been a great team effort. It’s just that there’s so many trees down on the ground.”
“It’s like a battle zone,” Brooks said.
For many maintenance employees, such as Casey Troy, fallen trees in his neighborhood and the surrounding area made it a long commute back to work on Thursday night and Friday morning.
“I was late to work because it took me over 3.5 hours to get here when it normally takes 25 minutes,” Troy said.
Troy and his coworker, Curtis Clifton, spent Friday morning cutting up and removing trees in the North end that weren’t tangled in or touching power lines. They said crews were working their ways down toward the South end where they suspected most of the damage occurred. They also said they were barricading fallen trees that laid across roadways and even though they warned drivers not to drive underneath the trees and power cables, many Islanders did anyway.
Damages and Closures
Even though most of the roads were opened by Monday, some damaged houses remained inaccessible and all parks were closed. Some homes were so badly damaged city officials prohibited residents from returning. According to property damage assessments obtained from city officials on Monday afternoon, occupants were prohibited entry from five “red-tagged” structures due to substantial damage sustained during the storm.
In addition, another 19 structures were “yellow tagged,” meaning the buildings had limited use. Occupants could not use certain rooms of the structure, had to leave their gas or electricity off if they wanted to return, or they could only return for brief periods of time to gather necessary and important belongings.
Even though there were not any serious injuries reported, there were some close calls. City officials said it received a several calls of fallen trees striking homes.
“One family called to say they could not leave their home because of two fallen trees and power lines lying across East Mercer Way,” Communications Coordinator Joy Bueling said on Friday. “The residents are stuck with down power lines in both directions.”
The family was confined to their home until Puget Sound Energy crews could secure the down power lines and remove the timbers by early Monday morning.
One of the first reports of fallen trees came on Wednesday when a concerned parent noticed a couple of fallen trees in the playground of Island Park Elementary School. On Thursday afternoon, before the big winds, a tree fell into the power lines outside of Islander Middle School and prevented parents from picking up their children at the normal student drop-off/pick-up lot. All the students were safe inside and PSE had the incident secured that evening.
According to Parks and Recreation director Pete Mayer, there were 25 calls of park damage and crews began assessing the damage on Monday. The bathrooms at Bicentennial Park had a tree fall on them and another tree fell in Luther Burbank. That cut off the communications equipment to the community center, but city staff quickly ran a bypass to off set the damage.
“Right now, the crews are only removing potential hazards like a leaning tree or one that poses a threat of falling on a trail, building or structure,” Mayer said. “We have completely assessed one quadrant of Pioneer Park, the Southeast, and there were 43 downed trees on trails and many more in the woods.”
King County parks crews were scheduled to arrive on Tuesday to help city employees assess and repair the damages. Except for the five designated parks for dropping off debris, all parks were to remain closed until damage assessments could be finished.
The Chamber of Commerce reported that all Island businesses were effected by the power outage. Besides the big grocery stores that had generators, most business could not open over the weekend. Even most restaurants were closed and Moreman said this loss of sales was very painful for the local businesses that really depend on holiday sales.
“All these merchants really missed out on a very important holiday shopping weekend,” Moreman said. “Not to mention that you couldn’t even sell coffee without electricity.”
Even the big stores lost plenty of perishable goods, especially the ice cream. The generators kept most foods good but everybody experienced losses, Moreman said.
By Monday, most business in Town Center were reopened and all had power restored. The South end shopping center, however, did not have power by that time and only the QFC was open since it had a generator to power the store.
To help local businesses and its members, the Chamber issued a statement asking residents to spend some holiday shopping in Town Center.
“We want to encourage all Islanders to shop locally and within downtown Mercer Island because there is lots to be had here,” Moreman said. “All the stores here have the things shoppers want to buy.”