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‘A real mess’: How Utah cities are managing after historic windstorm

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Carl Fako walks Molly through Richmond Park in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. The park is open again after crews cleaned up windstorm debris

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The “generational” windstorm that hit the Wasatch Front on Sept. 8 left in its wake extensive power outages and millions of dollars in damage, according to recent estimates by city officials.

As of Thursday, about 150 Utah customers are still waiting for their power to come back. The figure is down from the initial estimated 180,000 residents without power the day of the storm, according to Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Spencer Hall. He added that the company is “hoping to get most of those on today.”

The people left without power are mostly individual cases, where servicing their homes would only restore their power, not that of others. Rocky Mountain Power tried to first repair circuits that would bring back the most people at once, killing however many birds with one stone.

“Most of these that are left are situations where there was damage to the home that required repairs by electricians, and now we’re going back and reconnecting service,” Hall said. “A lot of it is just a matter of getting down to the end where some of the restorations are specific to one home. Like I said before, we tried to prioritize bringing on several customers at once if we could.”

He did not know how much the repairs have cost Rocky Mountain Power.

While many cities in Salt Lake and Davis counties — areas hit hardest by the storm — were still totaling damages and working to clean up on Thursday, initial cost estimates by local officials were in the millions of dollars — sometimes just for a single city.

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Ashley Bowen cradles son JJ Keola-Stott in Richmond Park in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. The park is open again after crews cleaned up windstorm debris

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“The full scope of damage from this citywide disaster is still being uncovered as our crews work every day to help the city and our residents recover,” said Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall in a statement. “Right now, preliminary estimates are at least $6 million in damage. That rough number does not yet include things like irrigation and sidewalk repairs, or filling in holes from toppled trees, so we anticipate that amount increasing in the months ahead. The city is still in the debris removal phase; we’ll keep residents updated on when we can shift to planting and repairs.”

On Sept. 10, Mendenhall announced official closures for a number of city parks due to unsafe conditions, including Liberty, Fairmont, Sunnyside, Jordan, Lindsey Gardens, Richmond, Riverside, Washington Square and the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

Salt Lake City’s Public Lands Divisions tweeted that Richmond Park would reopen Thursday morning, and it was “optimistic” that the west half of Liberty Park could reopen Friday. The other parks remain closed indefinitely.

Outside Salt Lake City, storm-related expenses ran up into the hundreds of thousands for several other cities, with costs still rising as cleanup efforts continue.

Kaysville City Manager Shayne Scott called public parks and the city cemetery “a real mess” following the storm and said the city “actually had to close it just for safety reasons.”

He estimates that nearly $300,000 in trees have been lost and said the city is still trying to put dollar amounts to the rest of the damage so it can make a report to the county, state and possibly the federal government as well. The report should be completed by the middle of next week.

Kaysville also benefited from assistance by the Utah National Guard, which saved an estimated two months of cleanup in the cemetery and parks, according to Scott.

“We will be forever grateful for their help,” he said. “I think we had 40 bodies, chain saws, some loaders, equipment.”

Additionally, many residents got power back much sooner than other Utahns. Kaysville has its own power company and does not rely on Rocky Mountain Power nearly as much as other cities.

“All things being told, things went very well here,” Scott said. “We had about half of our community out of power on Tuesday, but we had everybody restored by Wednesday night, so we didn’t have near the problems that Rocky Mountain Power and other communities had.”

The neighboring city of Farmington received similar assistance from the National Guard, as well as the Utah Department of Transportation, which significantly expedited its cleanup process, said Brigham Mellor, assistant city manager.

“I don’t think you can have a bigger UDOT fan club right now than the residents of Farmington,” Mellor said. “We’re also hugely appreciative of the National Guard, which sent people from all over the state.”

The National Guard pulled out of Farmington Wednesday but had consistently sent around a dozen dump trucks along with 30 personnel to the city each day since the storm hit, according to Mellor.

The transportation department started helping the city a day after the storm and consistently supplied another 12 trucks. On Thursday, it sent 34 trucks to make one final push.

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Cruzy Rosario and Giana Hernandez chat in Richmond Park in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. The park is open again after crews cleaned up windstorm debris

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“I don’t think the city could genuinely express how appreciative we are of both UDOT and the National Guard,” Mellor said. “I mean, we have four dump trucks. So for them to send 34 dump trucks in one day — they took what would have taken us probably a year and a half to clean up we’ve been able to do in almost two weeks with the National Guard and UDOT’s help.”

The Utah Department of Transportation also allowed the city to set up a staging area on its property during clean up, which is still ongoing. While the city is around two-thirds of the way cleared, some cases of significant damage to private property have yet to be dealt with, Mellor said.

“I would imagine either they are still dealing with the insurance company or they just can’t get the labor,” he said.

Still, all debris that posed a danger to the public has been removed, and no one is displaced due to their property being damaged, according to Mellor, which is quite the feat considering the magnitude of the storm.

“The damage from this storm greatly exceeded — you know, this is not scientific — but I’d say at least three times what we had in 2011,” Mellor said, referencing another large storm that hit the city.

“The last third will take longer because it will primarily just be our staff, and there may still be a few UDOT guys that help out, but at least now we’re to a manageable level,” he said.

Between equipment usage and paying employees overtime, the city’s expenses are in the neighborhood of $200,000, with another $100,000 estimated to come, Mellor said. Without the National Guard and the Utah Department of Transportation’s help, costs could have easily reached over $1 million.

Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini estimated his city has incurred costs of around $200,000 to $500,000 so far. He expects to have a better idea of the final totals sometime next week as cleanup work continues. One factor that may have made the storm less damaging in terms of financial cost is the city’s relatively low number of trees on public land, he said.

Centerville Mayor Clark Wilkinson said he didn’t want to speculate on the windstorm’s cost and that he, too, will better know the total dollar amount once he meets with the city manager and the finance director next week.

Centerville was also helped by the Utah Department of Transportation, which sent numerous dump trucks to the city following the storm. Another major mitigator of costs to the city were the efforts of its residents, Wilkinson said.

“A lot of the costs that could have (been) incurred were eliminated by the citizens and residents chipping in and helping out neighbors and getting things to the drop-off spots,” he said.

“We’re doing pretty good,” he continued. “There are always going to be lingering things, but when you look at the major damage, I’d say (we’re) three-quarters of the way there.”