Those weren’t exactly the words of Ken Webb, CU vice president of Finance, when confirming that the first April 27, 2011, storm-related reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Tennessee Emergency Management Agency has been received by the local utility. But the sentiment was right on.
On May 15, Cleveland Utilities received the opening FEMA and TEMA reimbursement in the amount of $1,255,108.94, Webb said. Another portion totaling $677,996 is yet to be received, but this one could take awhile.
“This will not occur until FEMA inspectors inspect the work performed ... to assure it meets FEMA specifications,” Webb told members of the Cleveland Board of Public Utilities in a recent formal session held in the Tom Wheeler Training Center. “This will be a lengthy process according to FEMA.”
“Lengthy,” as in “How long?” is uncertain because a slew of other communities, utility districts and government jurisdictions are awaiting their reimbursements as well, Webb said. Most of the FEMA and TEMA reimbursements are originating from the April 2011 tornadoes. In Bradley County alone, five tornadoes whose strength ranged from EF-0 to EF-4 ripped through the community during a 12-hour period.
The local twisters accounted for an estimated $40 million in area damage by destroying 285 homes, severely damaging hundreds of others, damaging or destroying 10 businesses and taking nine lives. This doesn’t take into account massive damage in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Ala., Ringgold, Ga. and other communities in and outside the state of Tennessee. All are seeking FEMA reimbursements of their own.
“... There’s quite a waiting list,” Webb said.
Of the local damage from the April 27 storms, the Cleveland Utilities electric grid — one-fourth of which was destroyed — and its weeks of repair accounted for about $2.7 million worth. The exact amount was $2,688,382. Of this figure, some $2,209,263 was eligible for FEMA and TEMA reimbursement. Under federal and state disaster guidelines, CU is eligible for reimbursement of 87.5 percent. FEMA is writing the check for 75 percent and TEMA is chipping in 12.5 percent.
Cleveland Utilities crews worked for months to fully restore areas impacted by the tornadoes although electric service was returned to more than 17,000 customers within 11 days thanks to the 16-hour shifts pulled by CU and out-of-town crews. In the words of CU President and CEO Tom Wheeler during the restoration work, a power distribution grid that took years to build was repaired in less than two weeks.
Some costs do not qualify for federal reimbursement, Wheeler explained in the board’s April session. One example is a portion of new equipment that was purchased to replace used equipment. Although CU is footing the bill on some of these costs, the new equipment will improve the utility’s performance and this makes for better customer service.
Federal policies on reimbursements for damage in disaster-declared areas have become more community-friendly, the longtime utility leader explained.
“This is a lot better than it was in the past when none of a utility’s costs were reimbursed following a disaster,” Wheeler stressed in the board’s earlier gathering. “In the 1960s, we would have received nothing.”
Federal reimbursements began in the 1970s, he said.
Much of CU’s $2.7 million in costs came as the result of out-of-town crews whose utility districts responded to the local public utility’s pleas for assistance. Crews traveled from as far away as Florida, Kentucky and other states, and some came from other Tennessee communities. Standard practice in such responses is for the host utility district to pay for labor, housing, food and other incidental expenses. Overtime piled up because of the long shifts pulled by hardworking recovery crews.