Letter Re: First Hand Observations on the Recent Pacific Northwest Wind Storm

Background: I am an 11 year veteran peace officer and survivalist, or in more politically correct terminology, a POP – Preparedness Oriented Person. I work in a moderate sized city in the Seattle area. On 14-15 December, the Tacoma-Seattle-Everett metropolitan area suffered one of the most deadly and damaging windstorms in recorded history. The storm easily eclipsed the last major deadly blow on Inaugural Day, 1993. That storm had been identified as a “once in a century” type storm. At the peak, over 1 million people did not have power.
This storm was modeled and forecasted with accuracy five days before it occurred. Yes indeed, people had five days to prepare. Weather forecasters warned viewers and listeners to be prepared. They were right. Gusts ranging from 55 to 70 mph were recorded in the area. Sustained winds exceeded 40 to 50 mph in many areas. A top gust of 135 mph was recorded at a ski area near the North Central Washington city of Wenatchee. A month of record rain coupled with several preceding days of heavy rains led to many more trees than normal being toppled. An unusually violent (for the area) thunderstorm produced heavy rain and ground strike lightening. At this writing, 4 deaths have been directly attributed to the windstorm. Three were from collisions with trees in the roadway and one from a tree crushing a mobile home. Additionally, the storm left clear skies and cold weather. The three following days after the windstorm had nighttime temperatures that were at or below freezing. One death was attributed to carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning and over 100 people have been treated for CO poisoning. The one who died from CO poisoning, he was running a gas generator inside his home. Several homes and business have been burned, either from direct electrical line contact to roofs and buildings or from candles igniting surfaces or being knocked over.
Observations: Gosh, where do I begin? In watching the news, it was easily apparent that so many were ill or unprepared. This continues to befuddle me, as the citizens of this area are involved in frequent windstorms, power outages, and other natural disasters or events. Watching the news showed how stupid people were. In one instance, a major eastside of Seattle city was 80% without power. This meant no power to stores, homes and other businesses.
Grocery stores: Stores could not sell as the computer driver point of sale terminals were down. People could not readily buy supplies. My local Albertson’s lost over $60,000 worth of cold and frozen goods as the power was off for 18 hours and by law, they could not sell the slightly warmed foodstuffs. People were traveling as far away as 30 miles to find an open store. Many stores that were opened quickly ran out of staples. Again, my local grocery was at minimal bread, paper goods, fuels (including the supermarket wood bundles) and batteries. While I spoke with the manager, I overheard one woman on her cell phone loudly complain that it was her third store that did not have wood.
Gas stations: stations without power could not pump. Those stations that could pump saw long lines and quickly ran out of fuel. One fellow was ingenious enough to stand beside a road in an affluent city east of Seattle and advertise that he was selling 25 gallons of gas for $15 dollars a gallon! And he sold it all! Expecting the worst, I refilled some gas cans and my vehicle on Thursday morning after I got off work. At the local gas station, a citizen who knows me made a snide comment about if the world was coming to an end. That citizen now sits in his home, four days without power. It was reported that those stations that were the only ones available quickly raised their prices to 20 to 30 cents above market prices, in reflection of demand. The state will apparently investigate whether these stations were gouging.
Alternative power: boy howdy! You can certainly tell who has alternative power. I could easily see their houses all lit up long before I heard the generators. A local firefighter I know half-humorously stated that he could make his retirement if he had some generators for sale on Craigslist.com right now. He is right. On a news report today, a local Home Depot had people waiting in line, just to buy a Coleman portable generator. Home Depot sold out of two pallets worth of generators in a very short time. Around here, folks would rather have that High Definition 42-inch plasma screen rather than a solid generator. POPs like me should look for a whole slew of lightly used generators for sale come springtime.
Alternative heat: a majority of homes in this region do have working fireplaces. However, you would think they are decorative as I heard of so many people looking for firewood. Local firewood dealers were busy selling and stocking. Additionally, many new homes being built do not have real working fireplaces but instead have what amount to nothing more than decorative gas fireplaces (which look nice but produce little usable heat). During the daytime, you could tell who did not have power and heat due to so many fireplaces burning. The chimney sweeps in this area should have a good spring.
Security: while patrolling, I was amazed at how many people in power out areas left their garage doors open. I was told by a few that they left them open because the power was out. When asked about the manual disconnect, they seemed generally amazed that there was such a thing on mechanical garage door openers . . . In addition to security, I was also amazed at how many people ran their generators in their front yards! Easily accessible and in less than 20 seconds, gone.
Where are the cops, firefighters, public works, etc? Folks, I can tell you everybody was out there (who were scheduled). My small fire station, which usually handles about 20 calls for service in a 96 hour block, saw over 150 calls during the same period, most storm related. A tree branch damaged one of the firefighting rigs. Cops were out there and stretched thin. Between doing road closures and stopping yet another knucklehead who could not read the “ROAD CLOSED” sign, they were busy. A couple of my fellow officers had to do traffic stops on people simply driving reckless around down trees, power lines, etc. People in this area simply got “a case of the stupids” when the weather went sideways. Public works crews from all the cities had their hands full. I know of one case where a woman nearly went to blows with a crew simply because they were cutting “her tree.” Of course, her tree was fallen across a street and blocking it. Again, the stupids. One public works worker I know told me of a story of a downed power line, hanging chest high in a roadway. They were blocking one side and flashing their headlights and amber rotators at people. One fellow stopped his car on the other side of the live lines, walked underneath them and ambled up to their truck to tell them that the lines were down. (The same ones he had just walked under–which were also the ones they were parked next to and trying to keep people from driving into .)
Power distribution: one of the things preventing having everyone up and running is short order has been the interactions of trees, lines, poles and crews to get things cut up. Per policy, public works crews are not to cut a tree until the downed power lines are declared safe. However, some lines cannot be declared safe until the trees are partially cut. Add to the mix that many power poles were snapped. No utility in the area had enough poles stockpiled so they have to be shipped it from the east. With the mountain passes suffering blizzards and some occasionally extreme weather, trucking becomes a challenge. Why power lines are not brought underground in this region is a mystery to me. Perhaps can enlighten me as to why.
As for my family, and me we took the warnings seriously. I made sure I had plenty of fuel in the cans, generator and cars. My battery/inverter setup was fully charged and ready. I had plenty of firewood stacked and ready. I purposely bought a house that has gas appliances and a fully normal fireplace with a heat exchanger system (with low wattage power blower – works great on just the inverter setup). I had my supplies established and weather the storm with ease. I did not have a tree fall on my house and the tree limbs I collected (that many people were disposing of with either services or green waste) made for a huge stack of logs to be seasoned for next winter. Best Regards – MP