While power from last week’s storm has been restored to most people in the region, about 4,000 are still without lights and heat, and even those with power again are upset about inaccurate time estimates they received throughout the week.
“It’s certainly not as fast as our customers would like,” Kevin Curtis, the vice president of electrical transmission and power delivery for Dominion, said Friday. “I know every day gets more frustrating, especially when it’s so cold. So we are still chugging through it. We are still finding a lot of damage.”
Nearly 1,000 people were deployed to repair the damage along with 200 bucket trucks, Curtis said.
A second winter storm dropped between an inch to three inches on the area early Friday morning, which closed schools but didn’t cause many more outages. However, that second storm brought freezing air that pushed temperatures into the teens late Friday.
By Saturday, about 4,000 people were powerless in Albemarle County. As the outages have persisted for several days, community members and officials have sought better information about exactly when the lights would come back on. A key issue during this storm for those in the dark has been inaccurate and changing estimates of when the power would be back, which energy customers and governments use to plan.
“I know based on the level of frustration and my personal conversations with county administration that it has not been as reliable this time,” Curtis said. “There have been some notable shifts in some of the restoration time that have affected customers and community planners.”
During a storm, Dominion uses an online map and hotline to share information about the outages and estimated time of restorations. Other utilities in the areas have similar maps but not all have provided estimates, given the extent of damage to the grid. Dominion is the largest energy provider in the area.
Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, has been working to gather information from utility companies including Dominion during the storm.
“The utilities need to provide customers with estimates they can use to make meaningful decisions when the power goes out,” Hudson said. “Dominion needs to trust its customers with more information.”
As Dominion crews worked to make repairs, they continued to find areas with significant damage, which changed the estimates for power restoration, Curtis said. The snow storm caused hurricane-level damage with the number of trees on the ground.
“That significant damage has caused those times to shift more than I think normally has happened and certainly most shift more than we would like to have in a situation like this, especially in the wintertime,” Curtis said.
The time estimates are predictions based on a formula that takes into account the nature of the storm, past experience, significance of damage, number of crew members and bucket trucks in the field as well as the number of outages, Curtis said.
In the past, Dominion waited until they had more confidence in an estimate as well as clarity about the damage and materials needed for the repairs.
“But that meant that we might not put a restoration time on any job well into the event,” Curtis said. “That’s not a good answer because everybody needs some information early. So we realized that the sooner we can populate the restoration time, the better.”
Curtis added that Dominion teams are continuing to work hard to get power back on.
“I’m certainly sympathetic to the situation that everyone’s in and the importance of restoration times for everyone to be able to make informed and educated decisions with good factual data,” he said.
After power is restored, Curtis said a review of the company’s response will likely include the decisions made and make time estimates as accurate as possible for communities and local governments.
“They’ve got to make significant decisions about whether or not to open shelters, and a lot of that hinges on how long the power is going to be out,” he said. “So these restoration times are critical to a lot of folks in making their decisions.”
Inaccurate restoration estimations have led to other issues as well. Albemarle County said it did not open warming shelters until Wednesday because it was initially estimated that most customers would have electricity back in a short amount of time.
Now, the warming centers and water access locations will be open through Sunday. On Saturday, the county opened another warming station at Monticello High School. Other warming centers have been set up at Baker-Butler Elementary, Greenwood Community Center and Scottsville Community Center. They are all open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, call (434) 297-8415 or visit communityemergency.org.
Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, which was hit hard by the storm, said early on during the cleanup that customers should expect to have power back by Sunday night. After initially missing a few estimates, the company stopped posting times.
By Friday, power was restored to 75% of its customers. Louisa County was the hardest hit area in the company’s service area, said Casey Hollins, utility spokesperson. By Saturday, most of the 4,500 or so Louisa County residents still without power were the utility’s customers.
“Louisa County has been ground zero,” Hollins said.
On Friday, Rappahannock announced updates to its online map to help people find their outage and access updates in response to feedback. The cooperative also has provided county-specific updates and work locations online as another way to provide more information.
When crews on the ground have more information about an outage and firm estimate, then the utility will post that time, Hollins said.
“We’ve had a couple of instances where we have posted an estimated restoration time and we’ve missed it, and that’s what we want to avoid because it causes further frustration,” Hollins said. “We want to make sure the information that we put out is accurate and not going to mislead people.”
By Saturday, Rappahannock crews and those who have traveled from out of state to help were dealing with more than 1,100 outages affecting more than 15,000 people. Hollins said they expect most to have their power back by Sunday.
During a meeting Friday about an upcoming project, Trish Stipanovich, CenturyLink’s manager for field operations for Virginia, said due to power outages the company has deployed more than 40 generators throughout different areas, primarily in Albemarle.
“It’s a constant moving game as commercial power is coming back on to make sure everybody gets services back up,” she said.
Not only is the power out to some of its services, but there are also instances of damage related to fallen trees.
“We just have a variety of things that we’re going to have to assess as we’re going through this week,” Stipanovich said. “We started that process, it’s going to take us a little bit of time. We’re probably at two weeks to isolate, fix, and try to get the components we need to … be back to normal.”
Voice and phone services are the company’s first priority, she said.
Allison Wrabel contributed to this report.