Rural co-ops meet with FEMA to discuss winter damage

TOPEKA, KANSAS - With another winter approaching, rural power companies in Kansas are hoping to push forward with efforts to restore electrical systems damaged by last December's ice storm.

A meeting with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials was held in Topeka to hash out repair needs.

A committee that represents 22 rural electric cooperatives and five municipal systems is disputing FEMA's repair estimate. The agency has offered about $39 million for what the rural power companies say is about $340 million in damage.

The rural utilities say FEMA evaluators who surveyed the damaged systems initially didn't take into account such things as electrical lines coming loose and fraying.

"That was the worst I've been through in 30 years in this business," said Don Hellwig, general manager of DS&O Rural Electric Cooperative in Solomon, referring to the ice storm that damaged electrical systems in western, central and northeast Kansas. "I don't want to ever have to do it again and I don't want my customers to have to go through it again."

It took FEMA eight months to assess the damage. Utility managers say it's crucial to move the process along as another winter season looms.

Officials with FEMA say the purpose of the meeting in Topeka is to reach an agreement on standards for additional repair aid.

"I think (FEMA officials) want to get everyone to the table before they decide anything along those lines," said Josh DeBerge, a spokesman for the Region 7 FEMA office in Kansas City.

Clay Center Public Utilities Superintendent Bill Callaway said the utilities will have the option of accepting or appealing whatever guidelines FEMA officials propose for assessing power line damage.

Clay Center Public Utilities was offered about $7,500, but the utility's engineers say that doesn't begin to cover the roughly $3 million in damage to its electrical distribution lines.

"We're very serious about recording and verifying what repairs we've done," Callaway told the Salina Journal. "We've recorded our man hours, what we've done and what (damage) we've removed. Hopefully, FEMA will look at that positively for reimbursement."

Bluestem Electric, which serves rural Clay County, estimates its losses at $13 million. FEMA offered the utility $242,000.

Hellwig, the DS&O general manager, said the cooperative's engineers recommend replacing 315 miles of power lines at an estimated $15.3 million. But FEMA offered $6,000.

"We have been told that the expectation is that when the working group leaves at the end of next week, there will be a framework to get something going with," Hellwig said. "That doesn't mean that all 315 miles of our stuff gets funded. But if you can tell me what the rules are, I can look at what's (going to qualify). That's what we've been after all along."


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