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Volume 27, Issue 4

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October 29, 2007

Flooding Leads to Large-Scale Power Outage

Written by  Bob Bazzetta
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The flood began at 5:57 a.m. on Monday, April 13. At that time, an engineer at the Merchandise Mart called the Chicago Fire Department to report that water was inexplicably pouring into a subbasement of the building at 222 Merchandise Plaza.

At 8 a.m., a whirlpool was reported at the Kinzie Street Bridge where the leak in the freight tunnel system occurred. By 10 a.m., ComEd began taking numerous calls from building managers in the Loop who reported flooding in their basements. Utility officials warned that the water could short out electrical distribution boxes in the subgrade levels.

At the same time, the city’s Fire Commission ordered power shut off in a substantial portion of the Loop.
ComEd then cut off substations in a precautionary move that affected scores of buildings.

At the worst of the flooding, 230 buildings and 900 ComEd customers were without power. Officials said power would be restored on a building-by-building basis.

Buildings built before World War II were most severely threatened as their nerve centers -- electrical and mechanical systems--were located in the subbasements.

As the water rose, systems were submerged, rendering the buildings useless.

As soon as the power went out, the scramble for emergency generator sets began.

Chicago-area suppliers were flooded with calls at all hours during the first three days.

Caterpillar engine dealers elsewhere in Illinois and in neighboring states pitched in to ensure that an ample supply of portable generators was available to downtown firms.

Flood loss estimated at $1.8 billion

Estimates as of late-May said the flood could cost $1.8 billion.

The Regional Economics Applications Laboratory (REAL), a joint project of the University of Illinois at Urbana and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, estimates the power loss drained $484 million out of the local economy during the first week of the disaster.

Losses could have reached $769 million if substantial portions of the South Loop had remained closed through the remainder of April, REAL said.

Chicago real estate officials, meanwhile, estimate the flood caused an additional $1 billion in property and casualty damages.

Commonwealth Edison Co. (ComEd), which provides electricity to the buildings, estimates that it spent $330,000 per day for additional manpower to manage the flood and another $300,000 per day to replace equipment.

Generators cure paralysis

The Chicago flood was initially a power-related disaster as far as business continuity was concerned.
Temporary power supplied by rental generator sets helped plug a leak in lost profits that would have otherwise further injured businesses already drained by the flood.

During the first few days of the disaster, which struck April 13, Patten Power Systems of Elmhurst, Ill., supplied downtown Loop businesses with 35 generator sets comprising 15 megawatts (mW) of capacity—enough to power a city of 3,000 to 5,000 homes.

Chicago Loop businesses used generator sets to keep their doors open and conduct business as usual, power essential building systems needed to take the first steps toward disaster recovery and provide backup power to protect critical building operations.

Without rental power, hundreds of businesses in the flood area would have had no choice but to close up shop until utility power was back on line. For some, this would have put a complete halt to business for weeks.

Generator sets enabled severely flooded buildings to get cleanup started within hours after the disaster began.
By attacking the problem early on, building owners and contingency planners were able to return properties to normal only days after the disaster had threatened to close them down indefinitely.

And while flood victims began the cleanup, others rented generator sets to serve as insurance against the devastating effect even a brief power loss might have had on critical operations.

Crisis team takes first step

Some of the hardest-hit companies acted quickly and were the first to secure rental generator sets.

One company, Orix Real Estate Equities, immediately formed a crisis team to shut off power, beef up security, and secure electrical switchboards and rental generator sets supplying 2 mW of power for the company’s 20-story office/retail building at 211 W. Wacker Drive.

The crisis team included mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineers and contractors, environmental consultants, insurance carriers, building management and the National Safety Council.

The morning after the flood hit, Patten dispatched a 1,750 kilowatt (kW) generator set directly to the site from the Caterpillar Inc. engine factory in Lafayette, Ind. The generator set arrived the same day, housed in an eight-foot by 40-foot container and transported on a semi-trailer truck.

With the generator set and all necessary cables and connectors on hand, the unit was hooked up to a series of four custom-designed switchboards assembled and installed earlier in the day on the first floor of the building by a team of 12 electricians.

The generator set was parked in an alley behind the building, and cable was routed through a first-story window.

Within 60 hours after delivery, the generator set was powering all electrical loads, including lighting, domestic water pumps, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and elevators.

The building was one of the first with heavy flood damage to reopen. Tenants were allowed to re-enter the building on April 20, which meant they were kept out for only four business days after the flood hit.

Orix reports its quick action allowed the company to meet its objective: Maintain goodwill with its tenants. Many tenants told Orix their businesses would have been devastated had they been locked out for an extended period.

Full utility power was restored to 211 W. Wacker on May 11, at which time the generator sets were returned.

Up to Code

There was a second reason emergency power was crucial for some buildings hit hard by the flood: City of Chicago building and construction codes had to be met before tenants could reoccupy some buildings.

This meant repair or replacement of electrical switchboards, elevator cables, fire pumps and sprinkler systems.
Electrical contractor Fries-Walters of Hillside, Ill., went to work immediately to help a severely flooded building at 1 North State Street get back on its feet.

On the day the disaster struck, Fries-Walters secured 3.5 mW worth of power, assembled new switchboards and assigned two 14-member work crews to the 600,000-square-foot office/retail center.

First, utility power was shut off and a 1,250 kW generator set was connected to temporary switchboards installed in an alley on the side of the building.

The power was used, in part, to drive 30- and 50-horsepower pumps, which removed thousands of gallons of water per hour. The generator set was parked on the street, and automobile and pedestrian traffic was routed around it.

While water was pumped from the subbasements, crews connected two 750 kW generator sets and one 350 kW machine to the temporary switchboards.

The power from these generator sets enabled 18 retail stores on the basement, first and second stories of the building to reopen at the normal start of business on April 15.

By noon on April 21, all water was removed from the second subbasement. With the water removed, crews refurbished switchboards and cleaned up all electrical and mechanical systems.

The three 4000 AMP switchboards were refurbished within five working days and the equipment passed inspection easily. The remarkably quick refurbishment was possible for two reasons: power from the generator sets provided lights needed to perform the work, and new switchboards had been installed in the building only eight months before the flood.

Now that the flood is history, contingency planners and executives learned that it's beneficial for businesses to plan for their power requirements ahead of time in case an emergency power outage strikes.

On May 8, new sprinkler systems and domestic water pumps passed inspection. On May 18, the remaining tenants returned to 1 North State Street.

Without power from generator sets, Fries-Walters officials said the building would have been lifeless until utility power was restored.

Playing it safe

While the battle against the flood progressed at 1 N. State Street, 211 W. Wacker Drive and elsewhere, other building owners whose basements remained dry rented generator sets as insurance against utility outages.

Northern Trust Bank was one of those companies. The bank learned by mid-morning on April 13 that a 12,000-volt transformer vault feeding five city blocks was under water at 120 S. La Salle Street.

Because of this, ComEd warned that a grid supplying power to the bank’s main office at 50 S. La Salle Street might have to be shut down. If that had happened, Northern Trust would have lost utility power for several days.
Northern Trust immediately secured generator sets to provide 3 mW of backup power to the building at 50 S. La Salle, which is used by approximately 1,000 bank employees and visited by thousands of customers daily.

The company also secured temporary switchboards, transformers and cables and lined up the staff to connect the equipment if necessary.

One 1,250 kW generator set was coupled to two 500 kVA transformers, which would have reduced the voltage delivered by the generator set from 480 volts down to 120/208 volts for smaller electrical loads, such as lighting.
Another 1,750 kW generator set was to power 480-volt loads for large motor-driven equipment, such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

The equipment was kept at the company’s vacant lot at 801 S. Canal Street, just moments away from 50 S. La Salle Street. Northern Trust estimated the generator sets and auxiliary equipment could have been hooked up within 12 hours.

By April 20, flooding no longer posed a problem for 50 S. La Salle and Northern Trust returned the generator sets and auxiliary equipment.

Now that the flood is history, contingency planners and executives learned that it's beneficial for businesses to plan for their power requirements ahead of time in case an emergency power outage strikes.


Bob Bazzetta is a Sales Manager with Patten Power Systems of Elmhurst, IL, a suburb of Chicago.

This article adapted from Vol. 5 #3.

Read 1917 times Last modified on October 11, 2012