Spokane Journal of Business

Recent Inland Northwest storm costs are still mounting

Some assessing losses; others benefit from work

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-Lori McLean
Capstone Construction Co. crews repair the storm-damaged roof of a home on Spokane's North Side.

As the Inland Northwest reels from nature’s one-two punch of a pair of violent windstorms in late July and early August, some businesses have yet to tally losses, while cleanup and repair services and suppliers anticipate big gains.

The first of the two storms, which blasted through the Inland Northwest on July 23, cut power to nearly 40,000 Avista Utilities customers, says Debbie Simock, a spokeswoman for Spokane-based Avista.

Less than a week after Avista restored service and replaced 120 power poles following the July storm, a second storm swept through the Spokane area on Aug. 2, knocking out power for about 50,000 Avista customers.

“The second storm eclipsed the first storm. Both storms caused the largest outages since the Ice Storm,” Simock says, referring to the historic winter storm in 1996 that knocked out power for 100,000 customers of Avista, which was still named Washington Water Power Co. at that time.

Avista hasn’t compiled the cost of the summer storms yet, Simock says.

For comparison’s sake, however, Avista estimated its costs resulting from Ice Storm at $21.8 million. Four deaths, including that of a WWP employee, were attributed to Ice Storm.

Today, Avista has 365,000 customers in Eastern Washington, North Idaho, and parts of southern and eastern Oregon, Simock says.

Following each of the recent storms, Avista dispatched its full force of 28 line crews with four to five people each, which at some point were all working to restore lines in the Spokane, Deer Park, and Davenport areas, she says.

Avista also hired more than 25 contract line crews in response to the July storm and 18 crews following the next storm, Simock says. The contract line crews, which typically have at least four people, were brought in from Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, and Boise, she says.

In addition, Avista hired at least four tree-removal crews to clear access for line crews, Simock says.

Line crews weren’t the only crews Avista sent to the field. The company also dispatched at least 10 two-person crews to neighborhoods to repair isolated outages, and 20 two-person damage-assessment crews were sent in advance to determine the type of crews and equipment needed to be assigned to certain jobs, she says.

In addition to extra duty for line crews, dispatchers managed more than 13,700 outage reports, prioritizing them to dispatch crews to the areas of highest need, Simock says.

During the outages, Avista booked 180 rooms in seven hotels across three counties to house repair crews.

Another Spokane-based utility, Inland Power & Light Co., dispatched all of its 37 lineman and contracted two additional line crews of three to four people each after the first storm, as well as four crews during the second storm, says Jennifer Lutz, a spokeswoman for the electric cooperative.

Inland Power also hired two tree-clearing crews following each storm, Lutz says.

In each storm, about 13,000 Inland Power customers experienced outages, primarily due to trees falling on poles and power lines, she says.

The Spokane-based electric cooperative has about 39,000 members located in mostly rural areas across 13 Inland Northwest counties.

Most of the recent outages occurred in the northern portion of Inland Power’s service area, including Deer Park, Suncrest, and Chattaroy, Lutz says.

“We estimate we replaced 50 poles that were down and 200 cross arms,” she says, adding “We built multiple miles of lines in 10 days working around the clock.”

By comparison, it usually takes a crew three to four weeks to construct a mile of line under nonemergency conditions, Lutz says.

Lutz says Inland Power hasn’t tallied its costs yet, but as with Avista, the storm caused the most outages for Inland Power since Ice Storm, Lutz says.

“We haven’t had outages of that magnitude in many years,” she says.

Following the second storm, Inland Power restored power to all affected customers within a few days.

“Everything is up and running,” Lutz says. “It’s pretty much business as usual.”

At least some retail businesses, including grocery and convenience stores, were shut down for varying amounts of time, though it wasn’t possible to put an approximate value on the lost sales and spoiled food they experienced. 

Some businesses’ losses, though, were offset by others’ gains.

Restoration contractor Capstone Construction Co., of Nine Mile Falls, has been flooded with business following the storms.

“I’ll bet we’ve taken in 100 jobs and turned away twice that amount,” says Adam Cummings, Capstone’s director of marketing.

Cummings says Capstone’s phones started ringing within an hour of the first storm and didn’t quiet down until about 10 p.m.

“When something like this happens, we’ve got 40 guys we can turn loose,” Cummings says. “Whenever a storm hits, our guys throw their chainsaws in their trucks and head for the shop.”

Capstone has about 45 core employees, and hires more to cope with storm-related business.

“Right now we’re at over 60 employees and hiring,” Cummings says. “We run eight crews. In situations like this, we bulk up crews and cover twice as much ground. In the first three or four days, we took 40 trees off of homes.”

Typical repair and restoration jobs range from $5,000 to $150,000, he says.

Spokane Power Tool also saw a surge in business, selling 40 high-end generators ranging in price from $1,000 to $5,000 apiece following the first storm, says Mike Christensen, manager at the store at 801 E. Spokane Falls Blvd., in the University District.

“The first storm did completely clean us out of generators,” Christensen says. “We had a very good supply.”

Spokane Power Tool sold a few more generators after the second storm.

The store also sold a few chain saws and saw a big spike in sales of chains, bar oil, fuel mix, and safety equipment.

With the added increase of fire risk, Spokane Power Tool is seeing a steady swell in demand for pump equipment, Christensen adds.

He says he expects a secondary rush as insurance claims are processed.

“We usually see a six- to eight-month ripple effect,” he says of business following big storms and fire events.

Some businesses are still anticipating post-storm sales.

Kelli Selden, marketing coordinator for Country Homes Supply Inc., located at 4111 E. Francis and doing business as Country Homes Building Supply, says she’s expecting to see a storm-related swell in sales of building supplies to contractors and homeowners for repairs and restoration.

Selden says many homeowners, including her, have storm-related insurance claims pending.

“A couple of builders who deal with insurance companies come to us for materials, which I’m pretty sure they will be buying once insurance comes through,” she says. “I think it’s going to start next week.”

Brad Hilliard, Washington and Oregon spokesman for Bloomington, Ill.-based State Farm Insurance, says the company is processing about 250 claims from the storms here.

“Obviously, we’ve received quite a few claims, and we do have adjusters in the area,” Hilliard says. “We’re reaching out to customers and getting out there as quickly as we can to assess the damage.”

He advises people who are waiting for insurance adjusters to go ahead and make temporary repairs to prevent further damage. People should photograph the storm damage and save receipts to give to the adjuster, he says.

“It’s hard to say how long it takes to process a claim,” Hilliard says. “It depends on the damage the home sustains.”

Mike McLean
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Deputy Editor Mike McLean has worked his entire journalism career in the Inland Northwest. Mike, who also lives to reel in fish and crank up music, has worked for the Journal since 2006.

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