The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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June 29, 2013

Derecho's winds still strong in memory

A word most of us never knew

Ominous black-and-purple clouds draped the landscape, in a portent of nature’s evil side.

Just before dark, exactly one year ago today, that sinister half of nature manifested itself, firing hurricane-like winds across West Virginia that bowled over tall trees and pulled down power lines.

Within an hour after the derecho struck, most of West Virginia was in the dark.

And it was hot. Extremely hot.

Without electricity, no one had air conditioning. Oppressive heat stifled anything that breathed. Refrigerators soon became repositories of putrid, spoiled food. No one could pump gas. ATMs went dead. Summer vacationers pulling off the Turnpike found no place to eat, or hotels in which to bed down for the night.

Tempers flared over diminishing supplies of milk and bags of ice at the few convenience stores and groceries that stayed open in the early hours of the crisis.

For some, the disruption of power lasted only a couple of days. Others found themselves plunged into the late 19th century for days on end.

Across the state, all power firms combined, some 850,000 people were without power. The outage affected about half of Appalachian Power Co.’s customer base of 350,000.

Can it happen again?

If it does, Appalachian is better prepared, but admittedly, nothing is fail proof, especially when nature unleashes a storm of the magnitude of the one last June 29.

“If you’re going to have a storm with the intensity of that derecho, it’s going to cause large-scale power outages, no matter how great our system is,” says Appalachian spokesman Phil Moye.

“That’s just the topography of the area. You have mountainsides. Trees come down. The derecho, as you remember well, brought very large trees down all over the place. With that type of storm, you’re going to have large-scale outages, regardless.”

Notwithstanding, Moye says the utility giant has taken steps in efforts to shore up its response to a potential repeat performance of nature.

“We’ve made some changes, based just on that storm,” he said.

An immediate problem in the wake of the derecho was putting up out-of-state crews for the duration of the restoration work.

“When you get that number of people in and also that number of people out of power, one of the things that is really difficult is lodging,” Moye said.

Thousands of extra hands were pressed into duty, and matters were exacerbated by the annual PGA TOUR golf tournament at The Greenbrier which meant hotels already were bulging at the seams with guests.

“We ended up at schools and universities,” Moye said.

“We had people sleeping in cots and things like that, and just scrambling to make that happen was a difficult thing. Since then, we’ve worked to build relationships with hotel chains, the logistics of getting people housed, fed, all that sort of stuff on a large scale.”

Another key element in beefing up Appalachian’s preparedness is the ability to move resources faster, he said.

“Now, when we see bad weather coming, or weather that has the potential to cause significant outages, we’re securing our resources in advance of that storm,” Moye said.

“And that would have been difficult with the derecho, because it came with very little notice. About two hours. The storm may have been predicted, but no one was predicting the kind of damage that we saw from that storm. That one would have been very difficult to get resources for in advance.”

Not so with Superstorm Sandy, the huge snowfall last October, he pointed out.

“We could see that a little further out so we were able to get resources on the ground to start restoring power as soon as the storm hit,” Moye said.

From his hotel room, on the morning it struck, Moye saw bucket and utility trucks ready to tackle the task.

“We had people on the ground and ready to respond as the storm was still happening,” he said.

“That is something that served us very well in the year since the derecho — just being able to get those resources in here in advance of the storm.”

Winds howled in excess of 100 miles per hour in the derecho, not unlike hurricanes that annually slam the East Coast.

“The storm itself was terrible, very intense and did a ton of damage,” Moye said.

“In the days that followed that, we had temperatures that were pumping up against 100 on many days. Then, that unstable weather pattern persisted and we continued to have storms after the derecho.”

Frustrations abounded with customers and crews alike, as follow-up storms knocked out power almost as soon as it returned, he pointed out.

“You have tropical storm force winds over a very widespread area, and so that’s going to cause large-scale outages, no matter,” the Appalachian Power spokesman said.

“But there are some things we’re working on to help better prepare us for the more typical thunderstorms. Earlier this year, we proposed to the Public Service Commission to go to cycle-based right-of-way maintenance schedules. Every year or so we would go in and trim the rights-of-way on each of our circuits. That would not stop power outages in a huge storm like the derecho, but in a typical sort of storm, things that will pop up in the evening with some high winds and lightning and thunder, it could help.”

If the PSC gives Appalachian Power the green light, he said, “I think we’ll see an improvement in reliability.”

“Another thing we’re doing is we’re adding sectionalizing devices that will allow us to switch power to alternate sources when we have an outage,” Moye said.

“What we’re trying to do now is coordinate and make sure the work we’re doing on the transmission side, the distribution side, lines up, so when the work is done, we can get people back on. Just coordinating efforts a little better. That’s something that helps in a big storm.”

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