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Storm preparation paid off for area residents

It had all makings of a B disaster movie.

By New Year's Day hype had begun: Pointing at dramatic swaths of green and yellow on Doppler radar, TV meteorologists told how the huge storm would roar in from Pacific and slam Northern California with a vengeance Friday and throughout the weekend.

Flooding, toppling trees and mountain winds of more than 100 mph were predicted. PG&E spokeswoman Nicole Tam called it "the perfect storm," conjuring up images of a real B movie and between the lines strongly hinting that power outages were likely.

By Thursday night, grocery and hardware stores were jammed with customers laying in food, flashlights, tarps, batteries, insulation and, of course, new-release DVDs. We were ready to ride out the latest Storm of the Century.

But a funny thing happened on the way to disaster. It didn't happen.

Yes, some of it was luck: Certainly the storm had its moments of fury, as wind, rain, snow and hail by turns took center stage. The few who had trees crash through cabins or shivered through 24 hours or more without power can hardly be expected to look back on the now-departed storm with charity.

The bottom line, however, that it wasn't as bad as even the National Weather Service experts had predicted. What's more, PG&E, county government, utility districts, fire crews, ambulance services and the Red Cross, who together plan disaster response, were ready for it.

If anything, they were too ready.

The Calaveras County Office of Emergency services had 50,000 sandbags ready to give to flood-threatened residents, but distributed only 6,000. Plans to quickly move endangered residents out of harm's way were never implemented and evacuation centers never opened their doors.

A reverse 911 system successfully warned more than 6,700 residents of low-lying areas of potential flooding and a new satellite communication system remained on line even when the Calaveras Government Center itself was without power.

Overkill? No way, said Sheriff's Capt. Clay Hawkins, in charge of emergency services for the county. "It's way better to be over-prepared than under-prepared," he said.

It's a sentiment with which thousands of PG&E customers who had their power restored in relatively short order over the weekend would agree. You'll hear few complaints that the utility spent too much overtime in putting 600 crews in the field statewide around the clock or shouldn't have bothered bringing in help from Southern California, Oregon and as far away as Montana.

That's because PG&E's weekend numbers speak for themselves: In Calaveras County, a high of 13,500 customers were without power during the storm, most due to a major transmission line outage. In Tuolumne County, 4,000 were without power at one time or another, many due to dozens of small outages that kept company crews on the move.

As of Monday morning, only 25 of the combined 17,500 customers who had lost power in the two counties

were still off-line.

Put into perspective, PG&E crews dealt with 10,000 outages that darkened 2.2 million homes statewide. As of Monday morning, said spokeswoman Tam, power had been restored to 2.1 million. She credited a "phenomenal job" done by the utility's crews and a year-round effort to clear trees from near power lines for keeping storm consequences manageable.

Those whose business is preparing for storms are probably just as grateful as the rest of us that the weekend blast didn't hit with the fury predicted.

But it gives peace of mind to know that when the real Storm of the Century does arrive, we will be in capable hands.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Ron Horton; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.

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