FEMA decision offers new hope for electric cooperatives

Tuesday, March 22, 2016
PHOTO BY RUSS MITCHELL Residents in Lake Park begin the cleanup process in April 2013 following a winter storm that piled about 4 inches of wet snow on top of a 1/2 inch of ice.

Area electric utility providers may finally be getting assistance to offset 2013 damage to the northwest Iowa power grid.

After two rounds of appeals to the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA), three northwest Iowa electric cooperatives and a municipal electric utility said they will receive needed funding to pay for millions of dollars' worth of infrastructure damage caused by an April 2013 ice storm.

Trees and power lines snapped under the weight of snow and ice during an April 9-11, 2013, winter storm in the Lake Park area.

The thick layer of winter precipitation left road signs unreadable and school parking lots empty. Round one featured a freezing rain system. Round two delivered four inches of wet, heavy snow to the Lake Park area.

Curbs were littered with cottonwood, oak, birch and maple branches. Main transmission lines into the city buckled and Lake Park residents were instructed to stay in their homes on April 11.

Gov. Terry Branstad issued a proclamation of disaster emergency in response to the severe winter weather and federal officials issued a Presidential Disaster Declaration on May 6, 2013.

But federal disaster response agencies were slow to respond.

FEMA told area electric cooperative administrators disaster aid could not be issued because the electric cooperatives "did not conduct comprehensive laboratory testing on every mile of wire on an annual basis," according to a fall 2013 statement from the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives. The group says the FEMA-mandated test is not performed as a matter of industry practice.

"It is also not required by the Iowa Utilities Board, which regulates Iowa's electric cooperatives and required them to submit reliability plans and inspection and maintenance plans," the statement went on to say.

In the past, FEMA relied on "visually observable criteria" to determine whether power lines were damaged beyond repair.

"FEMA's decision to dramatically change the policy on awarding federal disaster aid to Iowa's rural electric cooperatives is a betrayal of the public's trust and jeopardizes the future of the cooperatives many member-consumers in rural Iowa depend upon," Marion Denger, president of the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives said at the time. "We look forward to meeting with representatives from Iowa's congressional delegation in order to discuss the impact that FEMA's decision will have on thousands of their constituents and ask for their assistance as we encourage FEMA to reverse their policy change."

Lyon Rural Electric Cooperative, Osceola Electric Cooperative, and Iowa Lakes Electric Cooperative all sustained broken utility poles and damaged conductors, causing damage in excess of $19 million.

"We're thankful to Governor Branstad and the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for submitting the second appeal to FEMA," Chuck Soderberg, executive vice president of the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives said. " We also thank our Iowa Congressional delegation for their continued support on this issue. This funding is greatly needed to the three electric co-ops that were affected and now they can continue providing reliable and affordable power to their member-owners."

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley said he welcomed the decision of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to reverse an earlier denial of disaster assistance to three rural electric cooperatives and one municipal utility in northwest Iowa.

"It's good news that the state of Iowa prevailed and that FEMA ultimately listened to the state's case for disaster help," Grassley said. "FEMA exists to help communities recover from ice storms and other disasters. I'm glad to help wherever I can to make sure Iowans are heard at federal agencies."

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