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What the hell is happening in Portland? Power outages, ice, culpability

While Texas has received much of the attention after this week’s storm, hundreds of thousands of people in Oregon remain without power.

What the hell is happening in Portland? Power outages, ice, culpability
[Photo: Getty Images]
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Portland local here. My drive across town just now included gingerly rolling over a half dozen downed power lines in melting ice, and repeatedly detouring around major roads blocked by fallen trees.

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The author’s naturally iced street.

You may have missed the cold mess unfolding in Portland, Oregon, where a Thursday-to-Saturday storm has left hundreds of thousands without power for days. (Texas, not to be outdone, currently has over 3 million residents without power following a power grid crash.)

As of Wednesday morning, a whopping 8,493 downed power lines had left 173,000 Portlanders without power, after trees crashed into four substations and 12 transmission lines (which carry power from plants to substations). So many lines are down that officials advised locals to only call 911 when a downed line is sparking, arcing, or otherwise immediately dangerous. Otherwise, be cool. That power line in your front yard is not an emergency. Just call the power company’s phone number.

Why, you ask, is power still out four days later? Excellent question! First came a storm system that iced over the streets (and trees and tiny homes and bird-themed wind chimes), turning many streets into skating rinks, and cutting power to much of the city’s population (at least 422,000 lost power).

But, culpability looms: This year, Portland’s limited snow plow fleet of around 100 trucks were out before the storm applying a liquid deicer, magnesium chloride—a strategy that was abandoned 12 hours before the storm due to rain that . . . washed away the liquid deicer.

Nor were most roads treated during the storm, as the small truck fleet only drives main arteries, a tiny percentage of Portland’s 4,842 lane miles of roads. That left the majority of damaged electrical equipment inaccessible to power crews, and stranded the vast majority of Portland residents at home for days, where they quite literally waited for the ice and snow to melt, on its own natural time frame, which was about four days.

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Some variety of this Portland-is-an-ice-skating-rink-and-everyone-is-stuck-at-home clusterjam happens once or twice per year, and is incomprehensible to residents who have previously lived in the northeast or visited Scandinavia. It is also rather brutal for parents, who pay the high price of entertaining small children inside for days on end, with no childcare, possible work commitments, and this year, no power.

The two local power companies, Portland General Electric and Pacific Power, expect more days to pass before power returns. No word yet from Oregon’s favorite native sons, recreational pot producers, whose plants require electricity-powered grow lamps.