Some 7,000 households were in the dark for 30 hours or more over the weekend after a microburst snapped a dozen 80-foot power poles like matchsticks.
That’s more than half of the households served by the electric utility.
The general manager of CNMEC, the Central N.M. Electric Cooperative, spoke Monday about the power outage that left thousands in the Edgewood area without power.
Matthew Collins said the cooperative could have done a better job keeping its customers informed over the course of the outage, which started Friday afternoon, ending for most when power was restored in the early hours Sunday morning.
At times, there were contradictory messages on the cooperative’s phone message and website; also the volume of calls caused the phone system to crash, Collins said.
Still, Collins said the community was very supportive as crews worked around the clock to replace a total of 15 power poles, 12 of those 80-foot transmission lines, as they continued to be hampered by ongoing rain and the resulting mud.
That was 1 to 2 inches of rain in what National Weather Service meteorologist Kerry Jones—himself a resident of Sandia Park who was without power for more than 30 hours—described as a “classic signature wet microburst” pattern on radar. While some people reported seeing a funnel cloud, which both Jones and Collins confirmed, it may have touched down briefly, or not. To be considered a tornado, a funnel cloud must touch the ground.
A microburst, Jones explained, is “a small-scale, very localized downrush of intense winds.” When that happens with large amounts of rain, it’s a wet microburst, he said. “Small-scale” in this context means an affected area of about 2.5 miles or less. Jones said the most affected area near Edgewood was about a mile long.
Another aspect of a microburst is that it comes and goes quickly, typically in just a few minutes. Winds were likely near 90 miles an hour, which Jones said rivals wind speeds in the weakest tornados.
In addition to the microburst that took down the power poles, there were several other thunderstorms in the area Friday afternoon and evening, with “what we call a land spout tornado” reported around 5 p.m., Jones said.
All of that meant that repairing the downed power poles had to take place in the rain, and overnight, as repair crews of 12 to 18 men traded off without interruption until power was restored. They first had to “kill out and ground out both sides of that line in order to make sure the power is completely off and there are no isolated power lines that are active,” Collins said.
From there, crews started by clearing out broken poles and tearing all the wire down. “At the same time they’re determining what has to go up to replace what came down,” Collins said.
Crews also had to find the materials, including poles, hardware and wire, to replace downed lines, and “make sure what we need is available at the different warehouses, at our co-op, and since this is transmission line, coordinating with Tristate Generation & Transmission to expedite,” Collins said.
“I’m sure there was about 20 guys all at once trying to do everything—digging holes, setting poles, framing poles, directing traffic, coordinating with dispatch, talking with members, running material back and forth from warehouses as well,” Collins said. “Some of these guys worked 36 straight hours. They’d go home for a couple hours of sleep in a steady flow of men, rotating in and out to make sure they were fresh, fed and hydrated.”
On the first night, “it rained all night off and on,” Collins said. The narrowness of the roads, Dinkle and Venus, meant that there was not a lot of room to maneuver, and the ground was very muddy.
Jones said the event was a wake-up call as to whether area residents are prepared for a long power outage. “For wildfire we talk about a go bag. Are we really prepared? It’s probably good for all of us to think about what you would do if you didn’t have power for a few days. What’s your plan?”
He suggested the website ready.gov as one resource for such planning.
Meanwhile, CNMEC is going back to the drawing board to consider how best to keep its customers informed in the event of a similar outage in the future.