Schiff Shines a Light on Utility Outages

Photo by Mary O’KEEFE Congressman Schiff held a panel discussion on the utilities response to the windstorm.
Photo by Mary O’KEEFE
Congressman Schiff held a panel discussion on the utilities response to the windstorm.


The utility companies were on the hot seat Jan. 12 during a panel discussion held in Pasadena at the request of Congressman Adam Schiff.

The purpose was to discuss the response from the utility companies during the devastating windstorm that occurred the night of Nov. 30 to Dec. 1. The power outages stretched for days after the initial storm.

Schiff questioned why it took so long for some customers to get their power turned back on and from talking to constituents, why there was an apparent breakdown in communication.

Utility representatives from Southern California Edison and water and power companies from Glendale, Pasadena and Los Angeles explained how they approached the power outage that affected thousands of their customers. They spoke about the reasons, including fallen trees and utility poles, and what they are now doing to prepare for the next time.

“We had our crews on standby,” said Phyllis Currie, general manager, Pasadena Water and Power.

Although the company was prepared to respond, “our system took a significant hit,” she said.

Currie said the representatives realized there was a problem with communications.

SCE President Ron Litzinger, who said that at one point there were about 430,000 customers affected by the storm, echoed this communication problem.

“The brunt of the storm hit the San Gabriel [Valley],” Litzinger said. “There were hundreds of wires down….We replaced 200 poles.”

He added that at one point three-fourths of the customers in San Gabriel Valley were without power.

Litzinger said the company depended on their outage management system for customer service.

“The system was somewhat overwhelmed,” he said.

Despite being overwhelmed SCE turned down offers of help from outside sources, like other utility companies that had offered assistance.

Crescenta Valley Town Councilmember Mike Claessens said he was “shocked” that Edison didn’t ask for mutual aid.

He added there were many trained people throughout Los Angeles County that could have helped the company, maybe not with working on wires but perhaps spotting downed lines.

“There were probably a lot of opportunities we could have taken advantage of,” Litzinger said.

Litzinger said the procedure that was in place to notify administrators of outages did not work well.

Denise Tyrell, representative from the California Public Utilizes Commission, hammered the companies about the lack of communications.

After listening to the companies talk about what had happened during the storm and “lessons learned,” Tyrell said she did not hear anyone making communication a priority.

The Commission is investigating the response by utility companies. Some of the issues they are looking into include old poles and pole overloading.

Tyrell said their preliminary investigation found that at least one-third of the damaged poles were overloaded.  The CPUC has investigated 60 out of the 211 SCE poles that were downed during the storm.

Litzinger said he was cooperating with the CPUC and SCE has hired an outside agency to review their handling of the power outages.

Glendale Water and Power general manager Glenn Steiger said the city was up and running quicker than most.

The first customers were affected by the storm on Nov. 30 at 8:30 p.m. and the final customer went back online on Dec. 3, he said.

He added that workers logged a total of 4,600 field hours during the outages.

“This storm was [something we] had not seen in decades, with winds over 90 miles per hour,” he said. “We didn’t [just see] branches hitting wires but trees taking out poles.”

The public was able to vent their frustration with most of it centering on communication.

Schiff said there appeared to be no realistic time given to residents concerning how long their power would be down.

He called the windstorm an unexpected emergency drill that companies, cities and residents need to learn from for future events like earthquakes.