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  • 17 Sep 2014

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  • 18 Sep 2014

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Columbus Storm lesson: Be prepared

On the afternoon of Friday, Oct. 12, 1962, one of the most intense wind storms to ever hit the Pacific Northwest swept through Oregon. With hurricane-force gusts up to 145 miles per hour, the Columbus Day Storm tore roofs off buildings and shattered windows, uprooted trees and power poles, and left almost 98 percent of Portland General Electric’s customers without electricity.

It was the largest natural disaster in the country that year — and it offers a reminder of how important it is for us to be prepared for events that could have a similar impact on our communities in the future.

As the winds subsided and the next day dawned sunny and warm, PGE staff, retirees and temporary employees worked day and night to restore electric service. Extra work crews and equipment were brought in from as far away as Southern California and Colorado. Despite the massive damage, most customers had power again in 2 1/2 days — although it took about two weeks to bring everyone back on and wrap up the majority of the restoration work. The $4 million PGE spent on repairs at that time would be the equivalent of $32 million in today’s dollars.

Stories about the storm are a testament to the hard work and dedication utility workers and thousands of other Oregonians demonstrated as they rebuilt 50 years ago. While the Columbus Day Storm was an extraordinary event, “routine” winter storms and the potential for a major natural disaster like a Cascadia subduction zone earthquake should motivate all of us to prepare for similar challenges in the future.

At PGE, we’ve made many upgrades to our system since 1962 — learning from every storm as we build a more resilient system and constantly fine-tune our operations, including crew readiness, outage preparations and materials and equipment stockpiles. Today we have a stronger distribution system, with more underground lines, tree wire (with heavier-than-usual insulation) and an extensive tree-maintenance program. In addition, smart meters and the smart grid are laying the groundwork for even stronger reliability and outage response in the future.

Coordination with local emergency responders is also crucial. This fall, in particular, we’re making a special effort to reach out to local officials to give them a better picture of how we’re prepared to respond when the power goes out, and to gain a better understanding of their needs and expectations of us as well.

This communication is essential, because in a major storm or disaster, the region’s ability to recover depends on partnerships created in advance to identify capabilities and priorities, and assure that procedures to protect public safety and help those most in need can be implemented seamlessly.

These partnerships extend to every household in Oregon. Emergency responders and those of us who operate the public infrastructure need to prepare, but you need to as well. That means having an emergency plan and kit ready for your family and your workplace so that you can be prepared for a range of situations, from being stuck in traffic during an ice storm to finding food and shelter after a natural disaster that could disrupt power and other essential services for days or even weeks.

The Columbus Day Storm left many Oregonians camped by their fireplaces and digging into their canned goods while waiting for services to be restored. Tens of thousands of homes were damaged and 46 people in Oregon and Washington lost their lives. Hundreds more were injured.

PGE’s customer base has tripled in the past 50 years. Along with this dramatic growth, we’ve all come to depend on new technologies and conveniences that might not be available during a natural disaster or storm. To prepare, PGE offers tips on building an outage/emergency kit on our website, at PortlandGeneral.com/Outage.

Bill Nicholson is senior vice president of Customer Service, Transmission and Distribution for Portland General Electric.