The Princeton AmericInn Lodge & Suites by Wyndham was filled with activity Wednesday morning as Xcel Energy employees out of St. Cloud were joined by local fire and law enforcement in response to a natural gas service disruption.
The local lodging business was the lead site among six hotels that the utility booked for 152 Baldwin Township customers who have been affected by the outage, which occurred late Tuesday night
Mark Osendorf, Xcel Energy Community Relations manager, said he arrived in Princeton shortly after 8 a.m. Wednesday morning, but he was up all night monitoring the situation from home.
“We had an issue with our gas supply system; we were unable to maintain pressure on the line, and we had to minimize its impact. We are currently experiencing an unprecedented weather event. We have 152 residential customers who are without natural gas.”
The service disruption happened around midnight last night, Osendorf said.
“We’ve been working all night, placing people to strategically to address this situation, and we did have people trying to prevent this,” Osendorf said Wednesday morning.
Once it was determined that service was going to be disrupted to the 152 customers who are primarily in Baldwin Township, Xcel Energy set up its command center in Princeton and started arranging hotel rooms for customers so they had warm places to stay.
About half of the affected customers booked lodging, Osendorf said. Xcel Energy also used the AmericInn as a distribution point for space heaters, offering three of the devices to each affected residence.
About a dozen Xcel employees are working at the command center at the AmericInn in Princeton, Osendorf said.
“We need the weather to help us stabilize the gas supply system. That’s what we did last night by isolating this outage, essentially pinching it off to 152 customers,” Osendorf told the Union-Times Wednesday morning. “We need the weather to warm up so the line pressure stabilizes. We will have to re-gasify the system, and once we do that, we will go to each of the affected properties and turn meters back on. We need access to every single house to relight pilot lights and make sure everything is safe. This is a very different process from an electric outage.”
AmericInn Assistant Manager Jessica Warner said a member of her overnight staff received a call about midnight that the local hotel would be getting a large group of guests starting Wednesday morning.
“She forwarded a text message to me about 5 a.m. to give me a heads up, and by 9:30 to 10 a.m. we had a full house,” Warner said, adding AmericInn’s 45 rooms quickly filed up.
Warner said she contacted the Country Inn & Suites in Elk River, one of the six hotels on Xcel Energy’s lodging list, and starting sending prospective residents there. “The problem we ran into is a lot of these people have animals, and we are a pet-free hotel. We work with other hotels in the areas that allow pets.”
Baldwin Fire Department Assistant Fire Chief Robin Fischer confirmed most of the affected people live in the township. “Originally, we were paged to set up an emergency command center at our fire department,” Fischer said.
Sherburne County’s emergency services director was standing watch at the Baldwin fire hall right now as part of the unified command system that’s used when multiple fire agencies are dispatched, Fischer said.
“A gas outage is pretty unique,” Fischer said. “We’ve had gas line breaks, but those have occurred in the warmer months.”
Any home that does not have an electronic igniter for their gas water heater or furnace they need to have the pilot re-lit by Xcel Energy, Fisher said.
“We watching how many people are sheltering in place and using the three free space heaters that Xcel Energy is providing per home, and providing assistance as needed,” Fischer added.
Princeton Fire Chief Ron Lawrence said members of his department were busy knocking on doors and making sure people were aware of the gas service disruption.
“If there are people who are unable to get into town, for example the handicapped or elderly, we are delivering heaters out to them,” Lawrence said, adding that half of his department personnel were mobilized in response.
“Xcel Energy has called everyone. If you don’t have heat, come and get a heater, and let the plumbers come in and Xcel people in when they come to restore service,” Lawrence said.