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Hydro calls in extra crews from outside the Lower Mainland after storm cuts power to a half million customers

BY DAN FUMANO AND CHERYL CHAN, THE PROVINCE

 

B.C. Hydro linemen Colin Cadger and Aaron Seaton got the call Saturday night, flew out of Terrace 5:30 a.m. Sunday and were on the job site in Burnaby by 8 a.m.

“This is the gig,” Cadger said Sunday afternoon, about halfway through his 16-hour shift repairing power lines on Shellmont Street near Simon Fraser University. “It disrupts stuff a little bit at home, but it’s pretty fun work.”

Cadger and Seaton were among the 250 line technicians working feverishly to restore power in the Lower Mainland after Saturday’s massive windstorm left more than half a million customers in the dark.

The storm, described as the biggest to hit the region in a decade, battered southwestern B.C. with 80 kilometre an hour winds bringing trees and branches crashing down onto homes, power lines, cars — and in Surrey, onto a woman in her 40s who sustained life-threatening injuries.

The storm cut power to 533,000 Hydro customers, said Greg Reimer, B.C. Hydro’s executive VP of transmission, distribution and customer service.It was B.C. Hydro’s biggest service disruption since a series of storms over a few days in December 2006 downed thousand of trees in Stanley Park and affected about 600,000 customers.But in terms of a single-day event, Reimer said, some senior Hydro employees couldn’t remember anything as large as Saturday in the past 35 years.

About 400 people were at work on the restoration effort Sunday, including 100 from elsewhere in B.C. — an all-hands-on-deck approach, said Reimer.

“We’ve called in all of our own crews, we’ve called in all the available contractor crews, we’re bringing crews over from Vancouver Island, we’re bringing crews from Prince George, Kamloops — we’ve got to get our customers back on,” he said.

Supervising the linemen’s work on the Burnaby site, sub-foreman Mike McMinn said Seaton, Cadger and other Hydro workers were ready to gear up and answer the call, whether that meant jumping on a plane or interrupting their summer holidays.

“That’s what we do,” said McMinn.

On Sunday night crews had restored power to about 421,000 customers, with another 112,000 still without service. Most homes are expected to have power restored by midnight, although some would have to wait until Monday.

Many Lower Mainland residents took to social media over the weekend to express frustration over B.C. Hydro’s website, which worked only sporadically as many customers tried to look for updates online.

Reimer apologized Sunday for the website issues, which started Saturday afternoon “as a result of increased traffic.”

Reimer said Hydro will conduct a “post mortem” on the website failure to learn from the incident and try and make sure the site can handle surges in traffic in the future.

The gale-force winds took many off guard.

Environment Canada issued a windstorm warning Saturday morning, about four hours before lashing winds of about 80 to 100 km/h started downing trees and power lines and shut down traffic lights at many intersections.

“We knew there was going to be wind, but the storm deepened quite a bit more than we had originally anticipated and more than what our computer models were telling us,” said meteorologist Greg Pearce.

Environment Canada recorded a peak wind speed of 80 km/h at Vancouver International Airport and 94 km/h at the Abbotsford airport.

Hydro spokeswoman Simi Heer said the utilities company expected heavy rain, not the intense wind.

“However, as the wind picked up, we were able to enact our storm response plans and start calling in crews from other regions for sustained coverage,” she said.

Crews started coming in from as far away as Prince George Saturday. On Sunday, reinforcements arrived from Terrace and Smithers. More are expected on Monday.

Back in North Burnaby, area resident Howard Wong walked along Shellmont Street Sunday with his son-in-law and two grandchildren, all of whom seemed to be taking the power outages in stride.

“You just gotta make do,” said Wong, who improvised a Saturday night candlelit dinner of salmon and potatoes on the barbecue. “It’s just like camping.”

Wong’s son-in-law Eric Olson, said their Coquitlam home was also still without power, but the family kept the little ones amused Saturday night roasting marshmallows on the fireplace.

Olson’s daughter Mackenna, 5, said she enjoyed their evening in the dark.

“Marshmallows! I had two of them,” said Mackenna, before pointing at pointing at her sister 3-year-old sister Viktoria and adding: “She stole one of them.”

Earlier on Sunday, a crowd gathered outside James Dickson’s East Vancouver home to watch City of Vancouver workers remove a tree that had crashed on his roof the day before. Standing on East Georgia Street outside his home of the last 52 years, Dickson, praised the work of the city crews.

“It’s not often we have this kind of excitement around here. Especially on a Sunday,” said Dickson, 85. “When we get the power back and get our tea on, we’ll be all right.”

If power restoration extends to Monday, crews will likely be working under pretty wet conditions.

About 60 to 80 millimetres of rain is expected to fall on Howe Sound by Monday night. The downpour can cause flash floods and possible washouts near rivers and creeks, warned Environment Canada, which issued a rainfall warning for Howe Sound, Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley Sunday.

Heavy rain — as much as 50 mm — is expected for the North Shore and in high terrain areas north of Lougheed Highway. The rest of Metro Vancouver will also get soaked but not to the same extent, with only about 20 to 30 mm forecast for Vancouver by Monday night.

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