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Harrowing Tales, Heroic Acts

The lasting impacts of #snowmageddon
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Be careful what you wish for — the collective pleas of a state gripped in five years of severe drought were answered by a Tahoe storm cycle that has lasted nearly two solid months. While the precipitation has been a boon to the water supply and powder days, heavy rains followed by deep snow and high winds have left the region battered. Power outages, 100-foot fallen trees, flooded houses, damaged roads, and gnarled traffic have become almost routine, and the resulting costs — both monetary and mentally — have been staggering. In this feature story, Moonshine Ink gives a round-up of the effects of #snowmageddon. Keep in mind, while we haven’t broken any records for Tahoe/Truckee winter precipitation, snowfall, or snow depth thus far, we have a lot more winter yet to come.

Off the Road Again

The section of Interstate 80 running through Truckee is one of the most used thoroughfares in the States, but over the last couple of months travel has been severely hampered by road closures and damaged infrastructure. Commuters have cursed the short-term traffic effects of these storms on Truckee/North Lake Tahoe’s roadways plenty, but the aftermath will reach far into the coming summer.

“Any rainfall whatsoever can be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back,” said Liza Whitmore, public information officer for Caltrans District 3, regarding the delicate situation of California’s saturated soil. Whitmore says the ground above hardpack layers of earth is so soaked with water at the moment that even a minor rainstorm could cause a new round of mudslides, slip-outs, and road closures. Many of the issues that Caltrans and other public agencies face won’t be fixable until at least three to four weeks of dry weather allow the ground to recover enough to support reconstruction.

“Anything that we’re doing is basically temporary,” Whitmore said. “There’s no sense in trying to make a permanent fix now because we have no idea what these roads, hillsides, bridges, rivers, etc. are going to do with the additional rainfall that is going to happen over the rest of the year. So, what we’re doing now, is trying to make it stable and as safe as possible.”

Caltrans is responsible for all state roads, and Whitmore says that District 3, which spans 11 counties including Placer and Nevada, spent $31,574,892 on operating expenditures and personnel service during January alone. This is more than was spent during the entire fiscal year of 2015/2016, and according to Whitmore, the vast majority was allocated to — you guessed it — snow removal. She also mentioned that the district has spent approximately $1.9 million repairing 34,415 potholes this January, and has so far issued 45 emergency contracts related to major storm events to the tune of $63.4 million, though the agency has yet to determine the total cost of repairs.

The pothole issue might strike a sore spot for Truckee residents, as potholes represented a strong factor in Truckee’s incorporation in 1992. Local jokesters used to say that the cops could tell if someone was drunk if they drove straight down Jibboom Street, rather than avoiding the potholes. With the deterioration of the roads this winter, it might be time to break out those fishing rods again and drop a line in for some pothole trout.

Dan Wilkins, Town of Truckee public works director, said that his department has been working harder than ever to keep up with the seemingly never-ending barrage of storms, and at least 40 people in the department are working 12-hour shifts almost every day. Wilkins said that much of the repair work can’t be done until summer, similar to Caltrans.

“We’re unable to evaluate the extent of the damage due to the sheer amount of snow,” Wilkins said. “It’s going to be early- to mid-summer before we can even assess the damages.”

By the numbers, Wilkins said that the department has logged over 4,500 hours of overtime, and spent approximately $150,000 on private contracts. The biggest chunk of this change also comes from snow removal.

As bad as things seem here in the Truckee/North Lake Tahoe area, it pales in comparison to the issues that Sierraville experienced this winter. According to Whitmore, it rests in a floodplain, and on Feb. 9 people were actually kayaking down its flooded streets as approximately 2.5 feet of water flowed straight down highway 89.

Tim Beals, Sierra County’s public works director, said that the county has received about 90 inches of precipitation so far this year — sometimes falling as fast as 3 to 4 inches per day — and a majority of the flooding problems have arisen from debris blocking the area’s culverts. This occurred even after Caltrans spent an extensive amount of time putting in new culverts and clear drainage areas over the summer, according to Whitmore.

“It’s so much water, it overtakes most of our infrastructure,” Beals said. “You just do the best you can.” He estimates the storms have caused $4 million in damage to Sierra County roads.

Hardship for People and Businesses

Not one, but two trees fell on Chris and Stephanie Perry’s home over the course of only a few hours on Jan. 10 and 11. You may be familiar with the first tree that fell, as it was the one that brought down the main electrical transmission line to Truckee/Tahoe and plunged most of us into a region-wide blackout. The second tree fell right into their master bedroom — thankfully no one was hurt, but the family had to evacuate their home. Two months later, they aren’t sure when they will be able to move back in.

The Perrys, who have a young child, estimate that approximately $30,000 in damages to their home were incurred over the course of those 24 hours. This number does not include the costs associated with relocating their family into temporary housing. Repairs on their house will begin when weather allows.

Jaclyn Woznicki, the owner of Trunk Show in Tahoe City, and her husband Vince, have been forced to re-evaluate their art collection that they spent decades curating as an investment as a result of storm-related flooding. The couple had recently remodeled their home and moved the art collection into the basement of their Kings Beach house.

It was soon after returning home from a trip to Maui that the basement flooded.

“Most of what was downstairs was destroyed and sadly thrown away,” Woznicki said. “The loss was not only painful because we loved the art which is irreplaceable, but it was also an investment for our future. We cleaned what we could, but the dirty water and mold just wreaked havoc.”

As a result, Woznicki has decided to downsize. “This experience […] has reminded me of what’s important in life and has sparked in me a need to purge and sell my collection,” she said.

Former Moonshine Ink editor Melissa Siig and her family had their mudroom plastered all over the local and national news when an avalanche hit their Alpine Meadows home on the morning of Jan. 10. The family had hunkered down after a warning from Alpine’s ski patrol; when they finally made it out to survey the damage to the front of the house, there was not a single sign a house was even there except for a small corner of the roof that stuck out.

The Contractors Association of Truckee Tahoe notes how drastic these storms have been compared to the past few winters via the influx of calls since the first of the year. In 2016 CATT received zero emergency calls in January and February and put out one job to bid. During the same time span in 2017, they received 24 emergency calls and have put 11 jobs out to bid.

In addition to homeowners, many local businesses have also felt the impact of storm cycle after storm cycle. Specifically, businesses have been forced to close due to power outages and subsequently have lost out on primetime revenue-generating days and even entire weekends.

When power goes out, the Crystal Bay Casino can run their generator — powering its entire facility, minus executive offices and the smokeless gaming room — for up to 36 hours with current reservoirs. During one power outage, the casino was only a few gallons short of running out of diesel. As a staff member headed to the gas station with jerry cans, the power came back on. Some other local businesses that have generators are The Grid Bar & Grill, Cottonwood Restaurant, Mountain Hardware & Sports, Tahoe House Bakery & Gourmet, Steamers Bar & Grill, The Bridgetender, and Sunnyside Restaurant.

Not all businesses are so lucky.

Jake’s on the Lake, for example, has been forced to shut its doors because of the devastating flooding that occurred after the first large storm of 2017. They hope to reopen by early May — marking four months of being closed, during a busy winter.

“Unfortunately, we are on the sidelines of this busy winter,” said Jeff Hill, general manager at Jake’s on the Lake. He compared their temporary closure to blowing your ACL during a winter with great snow.

Tahoe Shoe & Clothing Company and Geared for Games, also located on the right-hand side of the Boatworks Mall, have closed because of flooding with plans to reopen this month.

Fortunately, there is some help. On Feb. 23 the U.S. Small Business Administration announced that low-interest federal disaster loans would be accessible to Nevada and California businesses and residents affected by the severe winter storms.

“Low-interest federal disaster loans are available to businesses of all sizes, most private nonprofit organizations, homeowners, and renters whose property was damaged or destroyed by this disaster,” SBA’s acting Nevada District director Ben Raju said in a press release.

It’s Not All Bad — a Community Rallies

“When things are going well with so many years of drought we all kind of drift apart,” Sherilyn Laughlin, a banker at Wells Fargo in Truckee, said during a recent Rotary club meeting. “But in these really difficult months, when it takes all we have just to survive, we seem to all come together and have each other’s backs.”

It really is true.

Since the first of the year, community support has been plentiful. Truckee/Tahoe Pay It Forward, for example, is a grassroots program in which over 30 local businesses are participating. It invites community members to put money on gift cards for public works and/or utilities workers to use for everything from massages and dinner to hot drinks and warm breakfast.

Battery Backup Needed

“Imagine having to climb up a 100-foot tree in a blizzard hanging over a power line,” said Steven Poncelet, Truckee Donner Public Utility District’s public information and strategic affairs manager, as he described some of the work the district performed this winter.

Trees posed a significant danger during these storms due to effects of the drought and saturated soils from heavy rain. Weakened roots challenged by high winds and snow-laden branches caused giant evergreens to topple into roads and onto power lines with uncomfortable regularity. Even with TDPUD’s aggressive tree trimming program — it has spent nearly $2.5 million since 2007 — the district estimates $1 million (and counting) in storm damage, with a large part of that having gone to labor and contractors, especially tree trimmers. For a district with a $22 million budget, this amount is significant.

That said, the district fared relatively well during the storms, with rapid response times to power outages.

“We saw what can happen with a well-maintained system. We were able to respond pretty quickly,” Poncelet said. The district’s water facilities don’t seem to indicate any issues, but full assessment of the system won’t be possible until the snowpack melts off, he stated.

The story is drastically different for Liberty Utilities, an electrical company that serves 49,000 customers, mostly in the Truckee area and in the heavily treed mountainous area of North Tahoe. Liberty’s system experienced sustained, widespread outages across its service territory throughout the storms. At one point, nearly half of its customers were without power, with some enduring outages lasting a week or more. The remoteness of some locations, coupled with the treacherous weather and road closures made it difficult to get to sites to do repairs. In several cases, once the weather cleared, repair crews were dropped via helicopter to reach the most remote areas.

As of this writing, Liberty has spent more than $2 million with contracted vendors to help with storm-related repairs, according to Travis Johnson, Liberty’s vice president of operations, and the expenses might increase to upward of $4 million. For example, the company typically runs three line crews; during these storms, they used 15 line crews working round-the-clock. Johnson has been working on this electrical system for 25 years under different owners and he says he has never seen storms of this magnitude.

“We’re on track for one of the wettest winters in history,” he said. “We’re in uncharted territory here.”

On a positive note, just in time for winter, Liberty completed improvements to one of its oldest power lines in October 2016. Known as the 650 Line, it generally follows Highway 267 from Truckee to Kings Beach. The company replaced old wooden poles with steel ones as well as swapped in thicker gauge wire to eventually allow it to operate at a higher voltage. The effort was the first of a three-phase plan to upgrade the company’s entire Tahoe/Truckee system. “[The 650 Line] was the only line that did not have problems during the storm,” Johnson said. Liberty hopes to complete phase two this year, which is upgrading local substations.

“We’ve been working hard to update the system,” Johnson said. “The system is very old and we’re trying to rebuild it. We’re excited to keep moving forward with this project.”

Both TDPUD and Liberty report that many customers dropped off cooked goods for employees, and provided free or discounted meals at local restaurants and “even a few hugs.”  

“Our crews have been working day and night since the beginning of the year,” Poncelet said. “Their response and work has been heroic.”

 
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May 12, 2017