BC Hydro is defending its efforts to restore power after a freak summer wind storm cut electricity to 533,000 Lower Mainland homes Saturday and left many residents scrambling to deal with thawing freezer food as the outages dragged on to a second and third day.
About 110,000 homes were still without power Sunday night and that dropped to 32,000 by 4 p.m. Monday – more than 50 hours after some of the outages began – drawing outrage online about spoiling food.
BC Hydro spokesperson Simi Heer said field managers have never seen a storm this challenging before.
"What made this storm so unique is that we had so many customers without power all on one day," Heer said.
"The last storm of this magnitude was in 2006. We had hundreds of thousands of customers without power then as well, but it was over a couple of days."
The sheer number of downed branches and trees over lines made it more difficult to switch the flow of power to reconnect homes, she added.
Unlike a winter storm, leafy deciduous trees acted like sails and became more susceptible to the surprise southerly winds, which came after stress from a prolonged summer drought.
BC Hydro called in staff on vacation and brought in crews from Prince George, Smithers, Terrace, Vernon, Kamloops and Vancouver Island to work 16-hour shifts to deal with downed trees and restore power.
"The damage was extensive and it was widespread from North Vancouver to Abbotsford – it wasn't just contained to one area," Heer said. "So extensive repairs were required all across the South Coast."
About 400 workers were in the field at any given time, she said, adding Hydro managers were "quite happy with the response."
Winds gusted at times to 80 to 90 km/h Saturday, and unpowered traffic lights caused traffic headaches as drivers used – or ignored – the required four-way stop procedure.
Large numbers of outages persisting into Monday were in Surrey and Langley.
BC Hydro has a priority system for dispatching crews but it's not one that favours any particular municipalities, Heer said.
Top priority goes to safety calls where potentially live wires are down across roads and near homes, as well as restoring circuits to critical services like hospitals and pumping stations.
Heer said the priority then shifts to where crews can get the "biggest bang for our buck" – quickly restoring service to 5,000 homes on one circuit as opposed to 50 on another.
Asked if that means denser neighbourhoods with condos and apartments get power back faster than single-family subdivisions, Heer said not necessarily – it depends on the number of customers on the circuits in question.
Also down was BC Hydro's website that provides details of each outage and estimates of when power is restored – a failure Heer called "unacceptable."
Trees fell on cars, crushing some, and hospitalizing one woman in Surrey who tried to warn others of the risk.
Falling trees also took down fences at the Greater Vancouver Zoo, but no animals escaped.
Trolley bus wires in Vancouver were taken down in numerous areas and one falling tree cracked the window of a SkyTrain.
The storm prompted reminders from authorities that residents should be prepared at all times to be self-sufficient without power or assistance for 72 hours in a disaster.
Other regions of B.C. have at times lost power for several days after a storm.