Power companies: Severe weather wreaks havoc in delivering 'one-two punch'

Mar. 26—In the words of one power company, severe weather Saturday "wreaked havoc" in northwestern Pennsylvania and delivered what a spokesman for another utility called a "one-two punch" to much of Crawford County.

Despite the widespread nature of the damage, repairs were quickly underway and power restored to many of those affected in less than 24 hours. Thousands more, however, remained without electrical service with repair work expected to continue through Tuesday.

By late Sunday evening, about 4,950 of 37,750 Crawford County customers of Penelec were still without power, including 360 in the city of Meadville and 975 in West Mead Township, according to a spokesman for First Energy Corp., the company that owns Penelec. Close to 1,400 also remained without power in North Shenango Township.

More than 920 Crawford County customers of Northwestern Rural Electric Cooperative (REC) were without power Sunday evening, according to the company's outage map.

At the height of the damage, more than 9,300 of Northwestern REC's approximately 20,000 customers were affected by outages in its five-county territory.

Approximately 52,400 Penelec customers in northern and central Pennsylvania lost power due to the storm, including about 16,000 in Crawford County and 6,000 in the city of Meadville.

"This was a major event," stated Ryan Meller, president and CEO of Northwestern REC. "As of 3:30 p.m. on Sunday crews had replaced 18 broken poles with several more expected. For the first time in more than 20 years, we had to request mutual aid from our fellow cooperatives in Pennsylvania."

"This was a very large system," agreed First Energy spokesman Todd Meyers in a phone interview Sunday evening. "One of the more unique things about this storm was the amount of rainfall we had prior to the wind. That saturated the ground and that meant a lot of trees were standing in soupy conditions, and when that wind came it was easier to topple the trees than perhaps if it would have been less wet.

"That sort of set us up for a one-two punch," he added.

The "punch" occurred on the weekend, which lessened the potential impact for schools, Crawford Central School District Superintendent Tom Washington noted.

"I feel that we're fortunate we're able to be operational on Monday and that to the best of my knowledge we didn't lose anything," he said Sunday evening.

District officials were on site at school buildings from about 4 a.m. Sunday, according to Washington. Among other activities, staff members monitored refrigerator temperatures. Washington said that power was restored before food safety became an issue. With the exception of First District Elementary School, power had been restored to all of the district's schools by Sunday afternoon. Power was restored at First District by about 8 p.m.

"We plan to have a full day tomorrow," Washington said.

Superintendent Jarrin Sperry said Conneaut School District's plans were similar. Several buildings that had lost power were restored by 1:30 p.m. Sunday.

"We are up and running," Sperry said in an email. "We may have a few phone issues, but that's it."

PENNCREST School District administrators did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Sunday evening.

The leading edge of the severe weather system began coming through the region around 4:30 p.m. Saturday, according to Meyers, and continued until past midnight. The system brought with it winds gusting in excess of 60 mph and consistently reaching 55 mph.

"And that wind blew for hours," he said, "not like a thunderstorm that comes through and exits."

Outages affected nearly the entire city of Meadville, including the traffic lights, which remained out of operation from approximately 9:30 p.m. Saturday until around 3:30 p.m. Sunday, when most were restored.

Meadville Central Fire Department responded to nearly 30 calls from the time the severe weather began until early Sunday evening, according to Chief Pat Wiley, with many weather-related calls with trees and wires down as well as medical emergencies, fire alarms and carbon monoxide alarms.

"It was definitely more widespread," Wiley said in comparing the event to past instances of severe weather and power outages. "We've dealt with it in certain parts of the city, but to have everything wiped out — it's not very often that you see that, thank goodness."

At an emergency warming station established at the Meadville location of Active Aging Inc., an average of about 30 people at a time were present for several midday hours, according to Krista Geer, executive director of the agency. The warming station, which offered phone charging stations as well as water, coffee and some snacks, was opened in anticipation of a longer outage but closed by about 5 p.m. after power had been restored to much of the city. Geer said she could not recall the agency opening under similar conditions in the past decade.

West Mead 1 Volunteer Fire Department reported responding to nearly 20 storm-related calls in a post to its Facebook page early Sunday.

"For several hours all 4 West Mead 1 apparatus were responding to incidents, along with several members handling emergencies in their personal vehicles," the post stated. "Members used their personal chainsaws and gas in their vehicles to provide a critical service to West Mead Twp."

Cochranton Volunteer Fire Department was even busier, according to a post on its Facebook page.

"With over 32 calls last night into early this morning, our team was able to clear and reroute everyone around all our hazards," the post stated.

Much of the impact resulted from the loss of a line that feeds substations in the Meadville area, according to Meyers, which occurred at approximately 9:15 p.m. Saturday. The source of the damage was determined Sunday morning.

"There was a large pine tree on the line south of the Erie Street extension near Saegertown," he said.

Before the line was reenergized, a helicopter survey was conducted to identify other potential sources of concern. The line was later reenergized before 4 p.m., Meyers said, and linemen in the field then continued rerouting power to bring additional customers back online.

First Energy crews from eastern parts of the state that were unaffected by the outages were helping in the response, according to Meyers.

"We're going to have work to do throughout that region into tomorrow and likely into Tuesday," he said. "There's a good number of crews that are working, but there's a lot of work to do."

Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.