Windstorm on Bainbridge partially destroys home

Power knocked out for days

A windstorm swept Bainbridge Island April 20, leaving dozens of homes in the dark for days and at least one home badly damaged.

Winds up to 25 miles per hour with gusts nearly 40 mph hit BI, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported — “near gale” on the Beaufort scale.

Fallen trees knocked out powerlines, especially on the west side of BI. A large pine blocked traffic on Miller Road NE for hours, and branches collapsed on some homes. BI Fire Department and emergency crews from Puget Sound Energy responded to downed wires, and the city advised residents to “treat all downed wires as live” and “stay off the roads if possible.”

BIFD worked from noon until around 7 p.m., covering 25 calls for service around the island, reported fire chief Jared Moravec. 20 of those calls were directly related to the wind event and included fallen trees, downed powerlines, and some small brush fires caused by the downed lines.

Resident Paul Brians reported four outages in a span of 48 hours on social media. While he “appreciated the hard work” of PSE crews, the agency was often slow to notify residents of outage updates and frequently provided inaccurate information, he said. “I texted our neighbors when the power had come back on last night because I knew from experience that when you’ve switched over to generator power, you have no easy way of knowing that the power has been restored,” Brians said.

PSE typically logs about 300 outages per year on BI, each lasting around three hours. There are about 159 miles of power lines on BI, and 145 of those are secondary transmission lines that serve individual homes. There are only three substations, so if one primary line goes dark, so does the entire region it serves.

The agency plans to upgrade one of the substations on the island and rebuild the existing Winslow transmission line. There will also be a new transmission line between Winslow and Murden Cove substations, but the agency did not give a timeline for these projects.

Some frustrated residents wondered why PSE doesn’t bury the powerlines. “Surely it can’t be cheap to constantly be sending out emergency crews at all times, day and night? Nor can it be cheap to mitigate the damage done,” resident Lisa Lub said.

PSE states that 57% of BI’s electrical distribution lines are already underground, but its unique topography makes burying more lines a challenge. The process of undergrounding wires can be three to four times more expensive than overhead construction, says the PSE website — the cost of which is often passed on to the consumer, energy experts say.

“While underground lines are less prone to severe weather events, maintenance costs may be higher, especially if the line must be unearthed or brought to the surface for repair, or if the area is prone to flooding,” said Richard Campbell, energy policy specialist. “Thus, the perceived benefits of burying power lines sometimes comes at a cost which communities are not willing to accept.”

To improve reliability, PSE performs annual tree-trimming and installs protective tree wire on overhead lines. Many BI residents have home generators and closely monitor trees on their property as well. “The diligent tree-pruning activity in our neighborhood seemed to prevent the outages that used to be so common,” Brians said. “But when you essentially live in a forest, there’s never complete protection.”

But trees struck more than power lines. BI Realtor Kim McLaughlin reported that an enormous tree blew over onto her home, “decimating a part of our house that had just been fully renovated,” she said. The tree had been cabled recently to reinforce its structure, but it wasn’t enough. The tree “[tree] didn’t sway, it snapped,” McLaughlin said.

All the family members were safe, but the incident was a disaster, McLaughlin said, adding they were almost in over their heads, but the community stepped up. “I’ve built relationships with people over the years, from my work and hobbies, and this has just been an amazing demonstration of community spirit. So many people stepped up to say, ‘What can I do? Do you need a place to stay?’ I had peace of mind because of Bainbridge Island.”