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Anger Grows as Portland Power Outages Drag into 4th Day

When the power went out on Saturday, Portland General Electric said the outages would be fixed within 24 to 48 hours. But as of Tuesday afternoon, 31,052 customers were still without power, forcing many to find warm shelter elsewhere.

aerial view of a snow covered home with trees t
A SW Portland house, seen here on Tues., Jan. 16, 2024, was damaged by falling trees in a winter storm that hit the city the previous weekend.
Dave Killen/TNS
Jai Sen had just moved into a new rental home in the Portland, Ore., neighborhood of Hillsdale with his 82-year-old mother who has cancer. The technology consultant had relocated his mom from New York state so he could care for her in Oregon’s milder climate.

So when the power went out Saturday and the gas furnace and hot water stopped working, Sen immediately reported the outage and tried to assess what to do next.

Portland General Electric’'s app provided no information as to when it would make repairs. What’s more, it “canceled” the outage and Sen had to re-report it multiple times.

The next day, PGE’s phone numbers were down and the utility sent him to an automated line that wasn’t working. PGE’s social media channels, however, declared that outages would be fixed within 24 to 48 hours.

So Sen and his mother waited, warming themselves with the heat of a small fireplace. They watched the temperature in their house drop to the 50s on Saturday, then the 40s on Sunday. They received two emails promising the outage would soon be resolved – but the power didn’t come back on.

So on Monday, when it was close to freezing inside the home, Sen made the decision to leave.

All the hotels were full. By good fortune, he secured a room with AirBnB not far from home, which he’s since been extending one day at a time – because the utility still won’t tell him when his family’s power will be fixed.

“We keep getting these misleading answers from PGE about how long it will take,” Sen told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “My mom needs a normal temperature, she has medical equipment. If they knew that it was going to take several days to resolve, couldn’t they just let us know, so we could find some alternative rather than just freezing in our homes?”

As temperatures plunged below freezing this weekend and strong winds downed trees across the metro area, taking out power lines, more than 100,000 customers lost power in the Portland area. Many say they were left high and dry as they waited in vain for any communications from PGE or specifics about repairs in their area. And, they said, the few messages the utility did send out were generic, obvious and far from useful to those freezing in their homes for three to four days.

The frustration continued to build even as power companies warned that a new ice storm set to hit Portland on Tuesday could bring even more outages.

PGE said it was working “around the clock” to make repairs – and the number of outages did significantly decrease over time. On Sunday morning, PGE had reported 127,000 customers without power in the metro area. As of Tuesday afternoon, an outage map for the utility showed 31,052 customers without power in and around Portland. The number of customers is the number of meters, including meters for single-family homes, apartment buildings and businesses – meaning a lot more people are actually affected.

PGE said it had approximately 1,623 people, including crews and support staff, working on restoration efforts on Tuesday – the highest number in the field as more mutual assistance crews from other utilities in Oregon and from California, Idaho and Washington arrived.

Based on the damage crews are seeing and challenging conditions, “a low percentage of customers will continue to be without power throughout the week,” PGE spokesperson Andrea Platt said.

In an emergency declaration on Tuesday evening, Gov. Tina Kotek reminded residents across the state to be patient. “The Oregon Public Utilities Commission has been continuously monitoring the response to electric outages. Utility line crews are working around the clock, often in treacherous conditions, to get service restored, but there is damage to many providers’ systems that require pole replacement which can slow restoration,” the declaration said.

Platt said estimated restoration times can be affected by several factors, including the extent of the damage causing the outage and the complexity of the repairs needed. In some instances, crews are finding more significant damage than originally anticipated, causing restoration times to get pushed out, she said. In areas where transmission lines and substations were damaged, for example, repairs take longer – likely many days, she said.

“PGE understands and appreciates that conditions are difficult and customers are frustrated. We continue to work to give customers the most up-to-date information,” Platt said.

But many Portland residents complained that the utility was doing the opposite of that.

Several said the PGE app gave people no information at all about the situation in their neighborhoods or at their addresses.

Platt said if customers aren’t seeing an estimated restoration time for their outage, it means a crew has not yet been assigned. “As soon as the crew is on-site and assesses the damage and repair needed, we update the estimated restoration time,” she said.

Portlanders also reported that PGE phone lines went down during the weekend and PGE then sent them to an automated phone number which, when they entered their address after a prompt, said no such address existed and hung up on them.

Platt said that for several hours Saturday, a technical issue affected PGE’s customer service phone systems and the PGE mobile app. She said a banner on and on the mobile app noted the issues and notified customers. The issues were resolved on Saturday and Sunday, she said.

And to the complaints from residents who had to re-report their outages multiple times because the PGE app canceled them, Platt said: “It can take time for an outage to be reflected on our map, so customers should check the map and call PGE if their outage is not reflected within 20 minutes.”

That wasn’t the case for Sen.

After getting a text message from PGE on Tuesday evening identifying the cause of his outage as “heavy ice and snow” – the first message he’d received from the utility’s system since he first reported the outage on Saturday – PGE reset his outage and claimed that power was back.

At the same time, thousands of “new” outages appeared in his area on the PGE outage map – including addresses along his street that have been without power all weekend, he said.

He again re-reported his outage in the PGE app, which rejected the report and claimed he has power.

“I still have no honest answer from PGE as to what to expect and don’t know if I could trust anything provided at this point. Clearly, it will be at least a week before I can even go home again,” he said.

In outer Southeast Portland, Lisa Leslie, her husband Chris Fitzgibbon and 6-year-old daughter Lucia got confirmation of their outage on Saturday, but the utility was mum about any repairs for three days. The strong winds had knocked a big tree over just around the corner from their home. The tree took out a power pole.

They reported the outage right away and received a text from PGE: “We determined there’s an outage in your area.” It took another day for PGE to send another self-evident update: “We’ve determined the cause of your outage: high winds.”

“We already know that, now tell us when’s it going to get fixed?” Leslie said she thought at the time. But on that question, PGE was silent.

At first, the family made the best of it, cooking in an outdoor firepit that Leslie’s husband had set up during last summer’s extreme heat and making smores in the fireplace that kept them warm.

But the temperature inside their house away from the fireplace went from 45°F to the mid-30s. The three snuggled at night in the same bed with extra sleeping bags and worried about their three pets: their dog Lucky, their cat Sullie and their corn snake Storm. They placed hand warmers in the snake’s tank, then put him in a pillowcase with a Ziploc bag of hot water and stuck the pillowcase in an insulated sleeping bag.

On Monday, with the house freezing cold, their phones out of juice and still no word from PGE about any repairs, the couple decided it was time to leave. They drove to Leslie’s parents home in Happy Valley, dog and snake in tow.

“It’a little scary when you have kids and pets and you’re just not sure what’s going to happen, how long are we going to be like this,” Leslie said. “We thought, what if this isn’t fixed for a week or more?”

That night, finally warm during dinner at her parents’, Leslie got a text from PGE informing her that power had just been restored.

In unincorporated Washington County, Bill Alsup, a retired Nike manager and musician, has had to wait a lot longer than that.

He and other neighbors lost power after a tree a few houses up Southwest 99th Avenue fell onto a home on Saturday and likely took a power line with it – but he’s heard nothing from PGE about when the outage would be resolved.

He also watched the temperature in his home drop to 32 degrees – just 10 degrees warmer than outdoors – on Monday and Tuesday. He said his neighbors were finally able to get through to the utility and heard an estimate of 10 p.m. Tuesday for the repair, but they weren’t putting much hope in the update.

“We’re kind of doubtful because of lack of clear information and because of the predicted freeze tonight,” Alsup said.

He’s been able to make it because he’s well stocked with battery-powered lights, has a camp stove and hand coffee grinder to make pour-over coffee, he said. He cooked a piece of salmon in the fireplace and stir-fried some veggies on the camp stove.

He initially took refuge by his fireplace but it wasn’t enough to warm his 1926 house. On Sunday, a friend brought him an indoor-rated propane heater. Since then, he’s holed up in his tiny bedroom, the propane heater keeping him barely comfortable.

He hasn’t changed his clothes since Saturday. And because one propane canister lasts about six hours, he wakes up shivering.

As of Tuesday afternoon, as the freezing rain began to pelt his windows, his home was still a balmy 32 degrees.

©2024 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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