FEMA could help county
It’s too early to say whether Douglas Electric Cooperative customers will see a rate increase following the recent snowstorm, according to Todd Munsey, spokesman for the company.
After unusually heavy snow devastated the county’s power grid, the utility’s storm-related expenses could be as much as $10 million, Munsey said. Those costs were unavoidable, according to Munsey, as the storm toppled even new utility infrastructure.
Whether or not customers see a rate increase will depend on whether Federal Emergency Management Administration reimbursement funds become available to offset expenses. The county and the state are in the process of requesting funding assistance for public entities, including Douglas Electric, from FEMA as part of the emergency declarations last month.
Wayne Stinson, emergency manager at the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, said impact reports submitted by residents and businesses help bolster the case for FEMA assistance to public entities, but there isn’t FEMA funding available for homeowners or businesses.
He said the storm’s effects don’t meet FEMA’s thresholds for the individual assistance program. Houses would have had to be completely or almost completely destroyed to qualify, he said.
“It’s unfortunate,” Stinson said. “But when you have a tornado that goes through or a hurricane that completely destroys a whole community, those are types of things that open up that individual assistance declaration.”
It’s likely that FEMA will reimburse 75 percent of storm-related public costs, however. That’s the standard proportion for the FEMA public assistance program.
The cost thresholds for the county and the state to qualify for the program are $407,000 and $5.7 million, respectively, Stinson said. Costs for both governments easily exceeded those thresholds.
In April, officials with FEMA and the state will meet with county officials to determine the actual costs of the storm, Stinson said. Preliminary cost estimates have been submitted to FEMA as part of the county and state emergency declarations.
“Not only do they look at the dollar amount, they look at the impact as well,” Stinson said. “That’s why we paint a picture of how it impacted our citizens and how it impacted our government.”
Thousands of residents were without power for weeks. People around Loon Lake, Upper Smith River and Curtin will be the last to get power back almost a month after the storm.
Munsey said the age of the utility infrastructure didn’t play a role in the scale of the damage because maintenance crews work continuously to prevent outages.
“We had miles and miles of brand new transmission line in the Elkton to Scottsburg area that was brought down — I mean brand new,” Munsey said. “Obviously with a storm of this magnitude, if there are any weak areas, they’re coming down. But I think this thing was so devastating that new structures, new lines, new systems, new builds didn’t matter.”
He said structures that were put up as recently as this summer “came down like match sticks.”
The amount of preventative tree maintenance the company can do is determined by the power line right-of-way.
Douglas Electric can trim and remove trees 15 feet on either side of smaller distribution lines and 20 feet on either side of larger transmission lines.
“It kind of all boils down to the fact that we have a 30-foot right-of-way, bordered by 160-foot fir trees,” Munsey said.
Despite its limits, the utility spends over $1 million a year to maintain the power line right-of-way, according to Munsey. Right-of-way areas are maintained on a two- to three-year cycle, he said.
Douglas Electric checks the durability of utility poles on a 10-year cycle, Munsey said. He added if a pole shows signs of damage or deterioration that suggest it may fall, crews replace it. Crews also mark and return to poles that appear to only have a few years of life left.
That 10-year monitoring cycle is standard for utilities across the country, according to a 2016 report by Jeffrey Morrell, professor of Wood Science and Engineering at Oregon State University. The average lifespan of a utility pole is 30-40 years, according to the report.
“Maintenance is ongoing,” Munsey said. “It’s not how we prepare for this storm, we’re always preparing, it’s more how do we respond to this storm.”
Although thousands of Douglas County residents were without power for weeks as a result of the recent storm, Munsey said Douglas Electric’s year-to-year track record for service is exceptional.
In 2018, the system was fully in service 99.91 percent of the year, Munsey said. The percentages for the three previous years were: 99.92, 99.94 and 99.97.
“Obviously it’s going to take a little bit of a hit this year,” Munsey said.