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Season’s first major storm leaves thousands without power

Residents of Longwood Lane in Clinton pitch in and cut apart a large tree that fell across the road into power lines. Residents were blocked from entering their neighborhood until the tree was removed. - Spencer Webster
Residents of Longwood Lane in Clinton pitch in and cut apart a large tree that fell across the road into power lines. Residents were blocked from entering their neighborhood until the tree was removed.
— image credit: Spencer Webster

It was Mother Nature’s test of how well islanders had done their homework since the storms of last year wreaked havoc on Whidbey Island.

The first big windstorm of the season hit the Puget Sound Thursday afternoon, leaving at least one man dead and more than 150,000 Puget Sound Energy customers throughout the region without power.

When the brief but powerful storm touched down on South Whidbey, some islanders were better prepared than others. And some knew just what to say.

“Oh, no, not again,” said Jason Tanner of Clinton.

Tanner was in downtown Langley, arms full of groceries, trying to keep his car door open and his dog inside.

Winds had kicked up on the South End around

2 p.m. and large parts of the island were without power by 4 p.m.

While some people had anticipated the storm and stocked up on batteries and generator fuel in advance, others made a run for necessities at the last minute.

Lines at the only two South End gas stations that still had power were long.

At about 5 p.m. Thursday, Ace Hardware in Freeland had two cashiers busy with long lines of customers.

“It’s the usual run on batteries, lanterns and propane,” Ace employee Kristi Ingram said.

Ingram said the power had gone out at the store about an hour before; they also had sold quite a few generators already.

“I’d say it was upwards of six generators at this point,” she said.

Ingram noted that the small rush was typical of times when the power goes out.

“It’s been a little crazy,” she said. “But, we’ll be open as usual until 7 p.m. Or at least while supplies last.”

In Langley, people had the same idea.

Star Store checker Megan Malecki said the usual must-have items were flying off the shelves — batteries, flashlights, candles. They were also selling lots of hot coffee, she said.

Star Store owner Gene Felton was hoping power would resume quickly. The store had been hit hard by last year’s power outages and the business had to throw away thousands of dollars’ worth of food when freezers and refrigerator units warmed up.

Experience helped keep him calm.

“I can go about 24 hours with the freezer doors closed before there’s a real problem,” Felton said.

On First Street, the sun shone and the wind had abated enough by 4:30 p.m. for folks to window shop.

Undaunted by the power outage, Virginia LaRue was busy selling antiques to Kris Hodge and Gretchen Dawson of Bellevue.

“Power’s out and Virginia’s open and ready for business,” LaRue said with a grin.

Hodge said workers were installing tile at her new home in Maxwelton Beach and decided to go shopping.

“It was time for some antiquing and that’s why we’re here,” Hodge said.

The southern and western shores of Whidbey appeared to be the hardest hit.

Fallen trees blocked a number of roads to traffic, including Sunlight Beach Road, where people walked around “Road Closed” signs to look at the trees that had fallen.

“I came down to check on a howuse my dad just remodeled,” Lauren Coleman said.

Coleman was relieved to see that the locust tree that fell over in the yard only hit the corner of the waterfront home and did not cause major damage.

“He’s going to be happy it didn’t hit more than just the gutter,” she said.

“It was just in ‘Northwest Home & Garden’ magazine, so it’s a good thing they took the pictures before this,” Coleman added.

Many streets in Scatchet Head turned into obstacle courses.

“I could feel the bits of wood from tree limbs hitting the car under my feet as I drove up Swede Hill Road,” Mary Centa said.

“I just went as slow as possible but still couldn’t seem to dodge all the junk out there.”

Some neighborhoods, just a few blocks down the road, seemed calm and unscathed. Even so, power was out until about 9 p.m. for much of Scatchet Head.

One of the longest reported outages was about 17 hours. Lights didn’t come back on until early Friday morning in some homes near Bayview.

PSE spokeswoman Gretchen Aliabadi reported 4,400 Whidbey customers lost power Thursday.

As of of 11 a.m. Friday, two work crews were still attempting to restore service to 190 homes in the Langley area.

“The problem boils down to trees and tree limbs falling on transmission lines,” Aliabadi said. “There is a cascadew effect where the damage causes the power to go out at a substation and then down the line.”

Storm-caused outages have driven South Enders to complain that Puget Sound Energy didn’t do all it could to prevent the sort of problems that happened last winter.

Not many were complaining about Thursday’s storm; it paled in comparison to last year’s big blows.

After Whidbey was hit by a number of smaller storms and power outages last year, a deadly windstorm blew in on the evening of Dec. 14.

The National Weather Service in Seattle said the Hanukkah Eve Wind Storm of 2006 caused 15 deaths. Almost 1.5 million people lost power, including 750,000 PSE customers and all of Whidbey Island.

Through the winter there were several storms that caused blackouts that lasted from several hours to several days.

PSE spent the summer sending crews out trimming or cutting trees suspected of potentially falling.

This time around the storm was fairly typical tropical disturbance from the Pacific Ocean, said Dennis Damico from the National Weather Service in Seattle.

“The highest gust recorded on Whidbey Island was 49 mph at NAS Whidbey though sustained winds were about 35 mph throughout the region,” he added.

However, Damico said the highest gust recorded on the mainland was 59 mph southeast of Everett — just across the water from Clinton.

The National Weather Service in Seattle had issued a high wind warning Thursday morning while the low-pressure system that caused the storm was still 130 miles off the coast.

One death was reported in the region; a kite boarder died on Lake Washington near Kirkland late Thursday.

The highest winds were reported late Thursday afternoon. That’s when work picked up for first responders.

For Fire District 3, things were quiet until an hour into the storm.

At that point, they began to receive calls about power outages and trees on power lines.

“On the screen, it looked like we had four to six calls but some of them were multiple calls for the same event, such as for Sunlight Beach Road and Saratoga Road,” said Assistant Fire Chief Mike Cotton.

By 5 p.m., the call volume decreased even though Cotton was still driving from one end of the district to the other.

“The calls have died down but the wind seems to be blustery still,” he said.

The district prepares for weather events when it gets advance notice, Cotton said. Thursday’s wind storm was no surprise.

“We have an emergency plan. When we have advance warning of a windstorm or an up-and-coming storm like this, we’ll make sure that our propane tanks are full, our generators are operational,” he said. “We double check to make sure all our parts and pieces are in place and we wait and see what happens. That is what we do in addition to the prepared status that we are already in.”

The city of Langley has also made improvements since the last storm season.

In the aftermath of last winter’s storms, the city of Langley began a emergency preparedness review.

City Administrator Walt Blackford, who has been a guiding force behind Langley’s emergency preparedness efforts, said the city had a back-up communication system installed at city hall that enables them to stay in touch with the county, firefighters and police.

The city of Langley, along with St. Hubert Catholic Church, United Methodist Church and Christian Alliance Church leaders, had initially considered purchasing a generator that would provide enough back-up power to keep business and life in Langley going. The high cost of the generator soon killed the plan.

Installation and other costs would have exceeded $30,000, Blackford said.

“We got together and said, let’s plan what we can do without a generator,” Blackford said.

Lynn Sterbenz, Langley’s emergency planning coordinator, and representatives of the Langley churches had just wrapped up a planning meeting shortly before the storm hit.

“Here we are developing a plan and we know things could happen as early as this evening,” Sterbenz said.

She said while planning isn’t finished yet, members were convinced they could handle a multi-day outage or snow storm.

“Even though our plan is not completed, we have a very good idea in our brains and we could pull it together,” she said.

The city and church leaders have been working on a plan for an emergency shelter for the past six months. They expect to have a final strategy completed by the end of the year.

“We’ll tailor it to the emergency. Every (church) location has specific resources. We want to take it cases by case,” she said.

Sterbenz also invited people to volunteer and become part of Langley’s emergency planning efforts. Meetings will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 23 and 10 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 27 at city hall.

While most locals coped with the first test-run for the season by trying to get home and wait out the storm, South Whidbey High School athletes proceeded with their practice.

Falcon football coach Mark Hodson said a little wind wouldn’t bother the undefeated Falcon team.

And he predicted another storm to hit the mainland Friday.

“Cedarcrest High School can expect a tornado when we arrive tomorrow night,” he said.

Record reporter Brian Kelly contributed to this report.

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