Tahoe blizzard reveals opportunities for improvement in communication

Amanda Rhoades
Snow-removal crews were hard at work last week, especially on Friday when the storm broke. Here, a plow works in the area of Village Green Mobile Home Park in Truckee.
Cassandra Walker / Sierra Sun |

TAHOE CITY, Calif. — Last week’s storm did more than just replenish ski resorts’ snow supply — it also left thousands of residents without power, rendered roads inaccessible, forced some to shelter in place until avalanche risk decreased, and halted the delivery of supplies and services to the Tahoe-Truckee region.

After several days of living without electricity during freezing cold temperatures, West Shore residents even lost cellphone service completely.

But as the community continues to recover, the question of how to communicate information in an emergency remains.

Lake Tahoe isn’t like nearby urban communities. Cellphone and internet service are already less than reliable in certain areas on a good day, so when a blizzard like the one last week hits, communication can be a challenge.

“We went everywhere from Facebook posts to working with the fire department and staying coordinated with all the local agencies,” Tahoe City Public Utility District spokesperson Kurt Althof told the Sierra Sun this week. “If the power would have been on, I think we would have done a really good job of keeping people informed.”

Althof said the TCPUD even posted fliers around the West Shore in an attempt to keep residents updated, since without power and cellphone service, it was difficult to know if things like emails and social media updates were even getting to customers.

“We opened an emergency shelter, but getting the word out was a challenge, so we reverted to the old way of putting fliers up,” he said. “But we struggled with the locations and how best to get the word out. In the future, it would be advantageous for the community to have designated locations (for fliers).”

In a statement, he said the TCPUD posted fliers at Tahoe House Bakery, the Homewood Post Office, Tahoma Post Office, Obexer’s General Store, PDQ Market, and the West Shore Market to promote its emergency shelter and charging station, which ended up being utilized by more than 175 people despite communication challenges.

While Liberty Utilities informed residents by posting regular updates on the company’s website, a spokesperson for the company said Liberty received 4,200 calls during the extended outage period, and Liberty’s customer service representatives spoke to 3,700 of those customers.

Placer County Director of Communications DeDe Cordell, meanwhile, said the greatest challenge the county faced was the fact cellphone service was intermittent or non-existent for many on the West Shore.

She said when cellphone towers were knocked down in the storm last week, and the roads were closed — which prevented crews from being able to make repairs — there wasn’t an effective way of reaching people.

“We were opening shelters at night and warming/charging centers during the day, but if people don’t have power, their mobile devices are either dead or without a signal — it’s impossible to let the people who need our help the most know what their options are,” she said in an email to the Sun. “The lack of phone and cell service also made it very difficult for us (county staff) to communicate with each other.”

North Tahoe Fire Protection District spokesperson Beth Kenna also said the region’s power outages made it difficult for her agency to communicate with residents.

“The (utility) companies worked hard to restore the power, but with the amount of snow and tree damage, understandably it took some time,” she said in an email. “We used social media, press releases, reaching out to the written, radio, television media, and (face to face) with the public to help mitigate the issue.”

Kenna added that North Tahoe Fire and Meeks Bay Fire, with assistance from Placer County and others, initiated on Friday the “West Shore Safety Assessment” after learning one of the district’s own retired employees was found in a “difficult situation” in her home during the storm.

In the assessment, fire district employees, volunteers and other agencies went door-to-door and checked on residents in particularly affected areas along Lake Tahoe’s west shore, mainly between Timberland and Tahoma.

A statement from NTFPD issued Tuesday morning said there were 50 reports of assistance from the assessment, which included evaluating infrastructure damage, downed power lines, personal property damage and helping citizens be able to leave their homes.

On the north end of Highway 89, in Truckee, storm impacts weren’t as intense, though power outages still affected many residents, and some neighborhoods served by the Truckee Donner PUD were without power for a few days last week.

According to a news release from the PUD, all 13,249 customers lost power due to an NV Energy transmission outage after a tree fell Jan. 10 at Coachland RV Park in Truckee, taking out the main line from Verdi.

In all, the TDPUD experienced over 46,000 customer interruptions. The most severe days were Jan. 4 (4,837 customers out of power), Jan. 7 (6,569 customer out of power), and Jan. 10-11 (when all customer power was lost). Crews reportedly responded to almost 3,000 outage calls from customers regarding almost 400 total outage incidents.

Truckee Town Manager Tony Lashbrook said the most challenging part of dealing with the storm for the town was actually the changing weather.

He said the shift from a heavy snowstorm, and therefore focusing resources on snow removal, to several inches of rain and emergency response to flooding, and then back to snow removal, was the town’s biggest challenge.

“This combination led to many more downed trees than we are used to seeing,” he said in an email. “We had to pull our crews off of snow removal to remove the down trees which put us behind the curve on snow removal.”

Amanda Rhoades is a news, environment and business reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at, 530-550-2653 or @akrhoades.

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