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Originally published December 19, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 19, 2006 at 12:02 PM

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Why isn't my power back on yet?

As work crews gradually restore electricity in and around Seattle, many among the powerless are in the dark over how utilities decide who...

Seattle Times staff reporter

As work crews gradually restore electricity in and around Seattle, many among the powerless are in the dark over how utilities decide who gets power back first — and who gets pushed to the back of the line.

Across the region, frustrated utility customers are asking: Why have others gotten their power back before us? And is special treatment being given to business districts and affluent neighborhoods?

"It's kind of strange; people down the street from us have power, but we don't," said Sean Shaw, 20, whose home in Rainier Valley has been out since fierce winds swept through the region Thursday night.

"I would just like to know what the method is for getting power back to people."

Seattle City Light and Puget Sound Energy say priority is given only to those customers critical to maintaining public health and safety, such as hospitals and fire stations. They also say they give priority to fixes that benefit the highest number of customers.

But as outages continued into a fourth day, customers offered their own theories, some of them conspiratorial, fueled by observations. On the Eastside, downtown Bellevue had power restored while many residential neighborhoods remained dark. In Seattle, the last large pockets to get power restored were all south of the Ship Canal.

"It does seem like some people are getting power back before others," said Shaw, who was keeping warm at an American Red Cross shelter in the Rainier Community Center. "But I also understand that trees fall on power lines randomly, so it's hard to tell."

Reporting outages


Customers still without power should not assume a utility is aware of the outage and should call to report it. Although hotlines can handle multiple calls simultaneously, lines are often busy. Keep trying.

Seattle City Light: 206-684-7400

Puget Sound Energy: 888-225-5773

Snohomish County PUD: 425-783-1000

Christopher Heimgartner, Seattle City Light's customer-service delivery officer, said priorities are based on safety and numbers.

"We are not going to prioritize Costco because they call and tell us they are losing money," said Heimgartner, offering a hypothetical. "All of our customers are our customers. They all pay their bills expecting good service and when the lights are out, we are not giving it to them."

Regionwide, outages appeared to have no bias based on socioeconomics. Wealthier neighborhoods such as Mercer Island, Sammamish, parts of Madrona and Seward Park have suffered endlessly in the dark and cold, while poorer and economically mixed neighborhoods such as White Center and Beacon Hill had electricity restored early on.

Heimgartner said City Light first responds to danger spots such as places where downed lines are creating a fire risk; flooded areas, where electricity is needed to power pumps that remove water; and intersections turned dangerous because traffic signals are out.

Another high priority is restoring transmission lines — the power sources that serve Seattle's grid. Attention then turns to "feeders," the lines that carry electricity from substations to entire neighborhoods. A single feeder line can serve 2,000 to 4,000 customers.

Heimgartner said 65 feeders were out after the storm, with 30 receiving priority because they fed critical services such as hospitals and nursing homes. When those feeder lines were energized, "the neighborhoods along the way also got their power back as kind of 'free riders,' " said Heimgartner, who was unable to pinpoint the locations of those 30 feeder lines.

Puget Sound Energy has a similar approach to City Light, prioritizing its major transmission lines and substations, as well as critical areas that provide public safety.

Sue McLain, PSE senior vice president of operations, said there are still 30 high-voltage transmission lines that haven't been repaired, putting that utility far behind City Light, whose service areas were not damaged as extensively.

Once PSE crews repair the substations and transmission lines, they will fix lines that will restore power to the most customers, just like City Light. Some areas will be given higher priority if the repair can be done quickly. That was the case when workers brought power back to a substation serving Bellevue Square, she said.

In Seattle, City Light has brought all of its feeders back up, and crews are concentrating on restoring "laterals," or lines that directly feed blocks of homes and businesses.

When crews set out to fix feeders and laterals, priority is given to those serving the most customers, Heimgartner said. He said he believes the feeder and lateral lines serving the highest numbers of customers are interspersed throughout City Light's service area.

Feeders in the north end got fixed faster than those in the south end because they sustained less damage, he said. While workers might have needed to fix 20 power poles to restore a south-end feeder line, only a couple of power poles had to be fixed to restore a north-end equivalent.

Even as lateral lines are restored, some pockets within neighborhoods — and even single homes — will remain dark because of isolated problems with lines that feed those customers directly.

"When we are left with one outage affecting one customer, that will be the last customer we get to," Heimgartner said.

Yoshiko Shiota, 85, who has cold hands from staying in her Rainier Valley house since it lost power Thursday night, has identified the culprit as a tree that fell on a line, bending two power poles. But since the downed line apparently serves just her and three neighbors, the fix is likely to be a low priority for City Light.

"I won't be able to survive another night in that house," said Shiota, who planned to spend Monday night at the Rainier Community Center shelter. Her daughter, Nancy, who also lives at the house, said neighbors had been trying to call City Light to report the outage, but she wasn't sure they got through.

Heimgartner said customers still without power should not assume the utility is aware of the outage — and should call 206-684-7400 to report it. Although the hotline can handle 96 calls simultaneously, the line is often busy. Heimgartner asked customers to keep trying.

Even though fewer customers are without power with each passing hour, phone lines are busier than ever, probably because frustrations are flowing and people are demanding answers, he said.

Heimgartner said if another storm hits and new outages occur, those customers will fall behind in priority to those who have been without service since last week's storm. The exception will be prioritizing jobs that help restore power to customers like hospitals and nursing homes, he said.

Times staff reporter Christine Willmsen contributed to this report.

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com

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