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The Storm of the Decade

(Photo - flooding)
(Click to view video by Brad Plummer and Olga Kuchment.)

It could have been so much worse. As crews mopped up the remaining damage, Environment, Health and Safety managers agreed that the swift, coordinated actions of the emergency responders critically dampened the impact of the recent power outage.

Cell phones rang out like alarm bells at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 19, as SLAC's Security Department notified emergency responders of a site-wide power outage.

"SLAC was black," said Lance Lougée, SLAC Assistant Fire Marshal and Emergency Management Coordinator. SLAC senior management decided to shut down the lab. The AlertSU system and phone trees notified SLAC personnel to stay home. About a hundred essential personnel were called in to assess and respond to the power outage: trained employees and middle management, and senior leaders.

According to PG&E, lightning had apparently struck a major power artery serving the Peninsula. Both SLAC's normal and backup power were unavailable. PG&E workers had to walk along the entire shut-down portion of the transmission line to find and fix the afflicted site.

By 6:15 a.m., following a carefully planned emergency response protocol, SLAC crews had set up an Emergency Operations Center in Building 40. Lab security, safety, facilities, communications and executive management gathered to coordinate a response to the outage and ongoing storm damage. Unable to use the whiteboards in the dim light, they wrote their plans and updates on windows with dry-erase markers. People with smart-phones connected to the internet and got weather reports.

The crews had only an hour to react before the outage would wreak havoc with sensitive accelerator systems. Lab samples and sensitive equipment relying on the chill of liquid nitrogen were in danger of heating up, which could mean irreparable damage and weeks of extra work. 

Meanwhile, most storm drains and lift stations were unable to keep up with the rainfall. Low lying areas including the IR2 and SPEAR3 were becoming flooded.

Another top priority was getting electricity back to the people staying in the Guest House. The building was hooked up to an emergency generator before dark Tuesday and would house several SLAC work crew members on Tuesday night.

"The key thing was personnel safety," said Craig Ferguson, ES&H Director. "Our emergency planning and training demonstrated that we can handle events of this magnitude." No one was injured during the recovery.

Matt Wrona, SLAC Facilities Division Director, walked around for more than ten hours on Tuesday. He checked on the state of facilities and buildings, and tagged buildings that were potentially unsafe. From the Associate Lab Directors, he learned which areas most urgently needed emergency power. He managed the facilities response to minimize damage. He reported progress to Building 40. The teamwork between everyone involved was tremendous, he said.

The "torrential downpour" quickly overwhelmed SLAC's pumps, so facilities crews installed diesel pumps and generators, including ones borrowed from Stanford campus. Near IR2 and in other areas, workers waded through waist-deep water in coveralls and other protective gear. They got wet anyway from sweating and from the horizontally-blowing rain.

"They took action as though they were saving their own homes," Wrona said.

At noon on Tuesday, the crews took a break for coffee, donuts and pizza, orchestrated by senior management. After lunch senior management decided that if the PG&E power line was not back up by 4 p.m., work would resume on Wednesday morning. They wanted to keep crew members from having to work long hours in the dark and wet conditions. Repowering SLAC would take about 10 hours, partly because the crews needed to make sure the motors and lines were dry and safe, Wrona said.

PG&E got the power line back up around 6 p.m. Tuesday. Wrona left a skeleton crew to keep the diesel pumps fueled. He and several other recovery workers stayed at the Guest House.

Just as recovery personnel were resuming work Wednesday morning after a safety briefing, a major thunderstorm and a tornado warning brought the workers back indoors.

"At nine o'clock the skies opened up and we got slammed," Lougée said.

The storm resolved at noon with a sharp, clear rainbow. Multiple people saw it and took photos.

For Wrona, the rainbow meant largely that the sun would come out and his crew could stop battling the "brutal weather." Much work remained for Wednesday night and the next several days. The staff began the orderly restart of electricity in the lab, first restoring the major power substation in Building 16, then the priority branch power lines. They restored fire and gas alarms, containment areas and accelerator system alarms. They began tracking down leaks and restarting maintenance equipment. Finally, they began to restore electricity to offices and labs. Facilities and ES&H staff walked through every building.

The outage threw into focus some of SLAC's aging infrastructure. Much of the equipment was old and overly-susceptible to water. Rain had also irrevocably damaged trailers that were thirty years past their prime, Wrona said.

"Over four days, we pumped out enough water for several Olympic swimming pools," Wrona said.

Everyone agrees that the facilities crew deserves a huge pat on the back.

"A week and a half after the event, the majority of facilities are up," Ferguson said. "Science was happening again as early as the weekend. It's a huge compliment to the Facilities Department."

See the companion video...

—Olga Kuchment
SLAC Today, February 4, 2010