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Millions May Lose Power as Irene Carves Destructive Coastal Path

Friday, 26 Aug 2011 08:51 PM

 

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Millions of homes and businesses are likely to lose power for several days as Hurricane Irene plows up the eastern coast of the U.S., ripping down power lines and flooding underground natural gas and electric equipment.

The power outages may dwarf those caused by U.S. Gulf Coast Hurricanes Ike, Rita and Katrina because of the millions of homes in the storm’s path, said Jim Nowak, manager for emergency restoration planning with American Electric Power Co., in an interview.

Power companies as far west as Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma are organizing repair workers to send East to help with repairing the damage, said Nowak, who is a member of two regional utility groups that are coordinating cleanup efforts.

“Everybody across the United States is on alert,” he said.

Utilities in the storm’s path were warning customers to brace for extended blackouts beginning with Irene’s landfall tomorrow. Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., a subsidiary of Baltimore-based Constellation Energy Group Inc., is planning for 500,000 or more potential customer outages, the company said in a statement.

Full restoration of power “could take between one and three weeks,” Public Service Electric & Gas Co., which provides electricity to about 75 percent of New Jersey’s population, said in a statement.

Underground Flooding Risk

“Our state has never before experienced a storm of this magnitude,” said Ralph LaRossa, president and chief operating officer of the Newark-based utility, in a statement.

Many of New York’s electric transformers and substations are located underground, putting them at risk of flooding from Irene’s rains and tidal surge, said Chris Olert, a spokesman for Consolidated Edison Inc., which provides electricity to 3.2 million customers in New York City and Westchester County, New York. Any area adjacent to the ocean, harbor or rivers may flood, with the highest risk in parts of South Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island that face the harbor.

“Let’s face it, New York is a city of islands,” Olert said. The utility may have to pre-emptively shut down parts of the electrical network to protect them from damage and to speed restoration when danger has passed, he said.

65 Million People

Irene, classified as a Category 2 storm by the National Hurricane Center with winds of 100 miles (161 kilometers) an hour as of 5 p.m. New York time, is projected to cause $10 billion in overall economic losses according to estimates by Kinetic Analysis Corp. A hurricane warning extends from Little River Inlet, South Carolina, to Sagamore Beach, Massachusetts.

The storm may affect more than 65 million people, or one in five Americans, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The population density along Irene’s path means damage will affect more people than storms such as Ike, which hit Houston in 2008, or Katrina, which hit New Orleans in 2005, Leonardo Duenas- Osorio, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University in Houston, said in a telephone interview.

Hurricane Ike slammed into the Texas coast on Sept. 13, 2008, causing the biggest loss of power in the state’s history. CenterPoint Energy Inc., Houston’s electricity distributor, said more than 95 percent of its customers lost power, or 2.15 million homes and businesses at the height of the storm.

Ike’s Power Punch

The company’s entire 5,000-square-mile service territory was affected by Ike’s 300-mile-wide wind field, and it took 18 days to restore power to all customers who could accept electricity, Leticia Lowe, a CenterPoint spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. Two days after Ike made landfall, more than 4 million U.S. homes and businesses remained without electricity from Texas to New York as the storm swept into the middle of the country.

As state and federal officials stepped up disaster- planning efforts for Irene, utilities hundreds of miles from the storm region began dispatching crews to help, said Dan Riedinger, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, a Washington-based industry group.

Consolidated Edison is bringing in 600 repair workers from as far west as Kansas and Texas, Olert said.

American Electric Power, a Columbus, Ohio-based utility and transmission company, is sending 542 line mechanics, tree contractors and support staff to utilities in North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, New York City and central Vermont, Nowak, the spokesman, said.

‘Multi-day’ Outages

The bulk of those workers are headed to assist Dominion Resources Inc. in Virginia and North Carolina, where Irene is expected to first make landfall, Nowak said.

Richmond-based Dominion, is bracing for storm damage and “multi-day” outages across almost its entire service area, which covers nearly 2.5 million customers, said Karl Neddenien, a Dominion spokesman, in an interview.

The Long Island Power Authority canceled employees’ vacations and arranged for 2,150 extra workers to help with repairs, Vanessa Baird-Streeter, a spokeswoman for the authority, said in an interview.

Trees, still covered with leaves that make them more vulnerable to high wind than in winter, are expected to cause the heaviest damage outside urban areas, Baird-Streeter said.

“Our system can withstand winds north of 90 miles per hour, but it’s the trees that can’t withstand that,” she said.


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