JUST IN: Teton County Declares Winter Storm Disaster

By on February 10, 2017

 

One of the 17 steel electrical poles massacred by a wind storm Tuesday. Lower Valley Energy crews and workers from five other utilities have embarked on a major operation to restore power to Teton Village and its neighbors. (Photo: Sargent Schutt)

JACKSON HOLE, WY — Teton County commissioners elevated the state of emergency issued for Teton Village on Thursday to disaster status for Teton County. At a meeting Friday, commissioners unanimously approved the resolution that signals to Gov. Mead the county will need state and federal disaster aid and assistance.

The declaration acknowledges the calamity of the last four days, as Teton Village and surrounding areas grapple with a multi-day power outage exacerbated by snow, rain, flooding, wind and high avalanche danger. These conditions have prompted the closure of multiple arteries preventing people from getting to work while compelling others to work long hours in their absence.

One million dollars in losses is the threshold for government entities and critical nonprofits to request disaster relief, explained Kim Johnson of Wyoming’s Department of Homeland Security. That number is already being reported by multiple outfits including Lower Valley Energy, which would qualify for government assistance as a rural power provider.

LVE estimates repair costs of about $1.5 million not covered under insurance after 17 steel electrical poles on Highway 390 were pummeled by ferocious winds Tuesday night, causing the power outage that impacted Teton Village, including Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, and more than 3,500 residents. The incident also dimmed the lights at Jackson Hole Airport, which has been operating on generators since Tuesday evening.

The utility has imported workers from five other locales and crews have been working around the clock in slushy, soupy conditions as temps have taken an unseasonable rise. “In our 80-year history, this is the worst disaster by far,” said Jim Webb, LVE president and CEO.

However, in the face of adversity the utility had some good news today—power may be restored to affected areas as early as tomorrow. For now, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, closed since Wednesday, is still anticipating a Monday opening. This is the resort’s first multi-day closure since 1986.

In Teton Village, which has become a startlingly quiet place, albeit the avalanche mitigation that JHMR ski patrol is conducting daily, businesses are reporting a collective daily loss in the millions. Thousands of employees are also out of work while hotels, restaurants and shops are shut down, explained Melissa Turley, executive director of the Teton Village Association.

Slade Ross of Teton County Sheriff’s Office reported a significant strain on TCSO due to road closures across the valley. “We have a lot of employees that live outside the valley so we have had to call in people off-duty, myself included. We are OK today, but during the weekend we will see some burnout … we might need to get people here by helicopter because some of these people can’t work much more.”

Sheriff’s deputies and myriad others are at the mercy of closures such as Teton Pass, which has been shut down since Tuesday with a scheduled reopening Saturday. Wyoming Department of Transportation crews have been unable to access the area since its closure due to severe avalanche danger. Snake River and Hoback Canyons were also closed in response to multiple slides yesterday. Snake River Canyon opened today around 10 a.m., however, conditions could change quickly prompting another closure, warned Rich Ochs, Teton County emergency management coordinator.

“We’re still dealing with high avalanche danger; folks who can’t get in, folks who can’t get out; people working overtime,” Ochs explained. “Speaking with Larry Pardee [director of Public Works], no mechanics are available because they are stuck behind closures … there have been impacts to several offices, I feel like we are getting by but if something else happens it is going to take us over the edge.”

Still, some commissioners like Smokey Rhea and Natalia Duncan Macker proceeded with caution today. They were hesitant to approve a resolution with the language “disaster” that encompasses all of Teton County. The town of Jackson is still operating somewhat normally and they feared it could send the wrong message to potential visitors and slow the area’s sole economic driver—tourism. Particularly ahead of President’s Day weekend when the valley historically sees robust visitation.

“We’ve already reached national news and people think we’re not going to survive over here,” Rhea said.

Ochs explained the declaration must be countywide to precipitate state, and then federal involvement. He clarified: “The disaster doesn’t shut down the community and a declaration doesn’t shut it down, but it pushes this to the top of peoples’ ‘things to do’ list. I have to work with a lot of partners and this is something the governor has to recognize.”

Ultimately electeds deferred to Ochs. “I can support this, though it’s very difficult for me because I remember what Budge Slide did to our tourism,” Rhea said, “but Mother Nature does what she wants and if Rich [Ochs] says we need to do it today, we need to do it today.”

 

 

 

 

 

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About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine and former editor of Planet Jackson Hole. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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