On November 17, 2015, a massive windstorm hits Spokane and eastern Washington, creating the worst havoc in the 126-year history of Avista (formerly Washington Water Power) and leaving 180,000 homes without power. Winds gusting to more than 70 miles per hour bring down hundreds of trees, blocking roads and splintering power poles. Two people are killed by falling trees, one in a Spokane backyard, another while driving near Cheney. Power crews from all over the region rush to help but the damage is so severe that, three days later, there are still 70,000 customers without power, or about two in five households in Spokane County. On Thanksgiving, nine days later, there are still more than 3,000 customers without power, mostly on Spokane's South Hill. Power is finally restored to the last customer on November 27. The state will apply for, and receive, federal disaster aid to help repair the damage.
On the morning of November 17, forecasters in Spokane were aware that a dangerous windstorm was approaching. City offices and libraries closed early, and businesses were urged to shut down in order to allow workers to get home before the storm hit. Avista, eastern Washington's major power utility, also foresaw the danger and put out a call for additional crews. As it turned out, the winds were even more damaging than predicted. The storm smashed into Spokane in mid-afternoon and continued to rage until well after nightfall.
Spokane's thousands of ponderosa pines swayed alarmingly. Some of them snapped off halfway up; others toppled intact, their root-balls ripped out of the ground. Often, they fell on power lines and created showers of sparks. A 71-mile-per-hour gust was recorded at Spokane International Airport and all flights were canceled for the rest of the day.
So many damage calls came in to the 911 system that officials asked people not to call except in case of life-threatening emergencies, of which there were several. Lea Anne Scott (1961-2015) was killed by a falling tree in her Spokane backyard. Carolyn Wilford (1945-2015) died when a tree fell across a road near Cheney and struck her car. The Spokane County Medical Examiner's Office said three other people later died from hypothermia because of the lack of heat and power.
Throughout Spokane, roads were completely blocked by trees. Power lines lay tangled across rooftops, fences, and residential streets. The vast majority of homes and businesses in the city were without power that night. The damage was not restricted to Spokane. Damage was reported all across eastern Washington and in north Idaho. When customers of other power companies were added in, more than 200,000 people were out of power. A related storm also caused havoc in western Washington, especially in Snohomish County, which also reported downed trees and extensive power outages. Washington Governor Jay Inslee (b. 1951) declared a state of emergency.
Avista, which until 1999 was known as The Washington Water Power Company, had set its previous power-outage record during a November 1996 freezing-rain disaster, which knocked out power to about 100,000. It was soon clear that the 2015 windstorm would far surpass that. "We all looked at each other with big eyes when it crossed the 100,000 mark," said an Avista spokesman, "We knew that we were in new territory" (Kramer, "Record").
The next morning, Spokane residents awoke to bright sunny skies and calm winds and went out to assess the scope of the damage. Travel in many parts of the city was impossible. Some people managed to navigate their way to the few stores that were open. The REI store in Spokane had no power, yet employees with headlamps led customers through the cavernous store in search of emergency supplies. All of the city's schools were shut down; 34 of Spokane's 54 schools "were without power, phones or both" (Francovich).
Avista crews worked day and night and hundreds of power-line workers from Oregon, Montana, Nevada, and California drove in to help. However, repairing the damage took much longer than expected, mainly because so much of the damage was in urban areas where power lines ran through back yards. Many downed lines and poles were not accessible by truck. As of November 22, there were still 34,800 Avista customers without power; a day later, 11 Spokane schools still lacked power.
Progress was steady, if slow. Most customers had their power restored in plenty of time to cook a Thanksgiving turkey on November 26 -- but not everyone. On November 27, Avista mailed 3,074 supermarket gift cards worth $150 to all of the customers who had still been without power on Thanksgiving. An Avista spokesman called it "the right thing" to do ("Gift Cards"). Power to all remaining customers was restored on November 27. On November 30, the Spokane School District finally reopened after the equivalent of a 12-day "holiday."
In January 2016, Governor Inslee filed a formal request for $21.7 million in federal disaster aid for damage caused by the windstorm. President Barack Obama (b. 1961) subsequently granted the request, which also included funding for wind and flood damage on the west side of Washington.
When Avista released its 2015 earnings report, it announced that the storm damage to its electrical distribution system had totaled $23 million. The company expected that it would take a period of years to recover the costs. In February 2016, it requested a rate increase for 2017 and 2018, in part to recover costs from the storm. The company said it also paid out $2.9 million "in employee overtime and wages to contract crews who worked around the clock to restore power during the outage," which Scott Morris, Avista's chairman and chief executive, called "a monumental task that took thousands of hours" (Kramer, "Bottom Line"). It was accomplished, remarkably, without any workers being injured. These costs cut deeply into Avista's 2015 bottom line. Yet despite all the work and all the trauma, Avista announced that it still remained profitable overall in 2015, with net income of $123.2 million on sales of $1.5 billion.