Great Efforts

Posted: October 1, 2019, 12:00 am

Wiregrass Electric receives FEMA reimbursement for storm recovery efforts.

Work on a power line being done by linemen.

One year ago, Hurricane Michael thrashed the Wiregrass region, and Wiregrass Electric Cooperative (WEC) and its members suffered. Almost 18,000 members lost power. The storm downed about 60 miles of WEC’s electric lines, and more than 500 poles were broken or damaged.

Restoring power required nine days and 225 linemen from WEC and other Alabama cooperatives. They worked 45,000 hours, and storm recovery required $7.6 million.

Now, WEC is proud to let its members know that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse WEC $5,660,768.46 for hurricane-related damage to its electrical system.

Securing this reimbursement required hard work and attention to detail by WEC employees, who tracked and documented expenses associated with the storm. FEMA reimburses applicants for 75% of eligible costs. The reimbursement is paid to the state, which disburses funds to eligible organizations such as WEC.

“Because of the efforts of our WEC empÔloyees, this storm is going to have no impact on rates,” WEC Chief Operating Officer Brad Kimbro says. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime storm, with massive damage. We were proud to safely and quickly restore outages, while also managing everything financially without rate impacts to our members.”

Proper Documentation

The reason WEC received 75% of eligible costs comes down to one word — documentation — and the process began well before Michael made landfall.

A lineman from Cherokee Electric Cooperative works to remove debris in WEC’s territory following Hurricane Michael.

Anytime there is a risk for potential severe weather or an event such as a hurricane, WEC’s management and senior staff meet to review the cooperative’s emergency restoration plan. They also review this throughout the year, even when severe weather is not a risk.

During the meeting, WEC staff members go over a range of items, including plans for restoring power in the event of widespread outages, an inventory of supplies, and preparations for securing additional supplies. The team also discusses FEMA reimbursement requirements if a storm is a qualifying event.

“As soon as you have the first storm meeting, you start thinking about it,” WEC Chief Financial Officer Lisa LeNoir says. “For example, if you are going to be providing meals for linemen from outside the cooperative, then we start thinking about how we need to provide those meals so it can qualify for FEMA reimbursement, because meals provided through the restoration process in events like these qualify as a reimbursable expense.”

Once the storm hits, the work starts — and not just the work to restore power. Employees must report their work on a timesheet, which tracks the locations and number of hours worked. Photographs provided by employees that show storm damage are also crucial, as is an inventory of supplies before and after a storm.

WEC’s Manager of Energy Services Jessie Ingram used the cooperative’s drone to take video and photos of the storm damage to assist with FEMA documentation.

“If we didn’t have proper documentation, we would have been in a difficult position to receive FEMA reimbursement,” LeNoir says. “I am very proud of everyone involved, because we had to keep accurate and defendable records and we had to supply the records. This involved everybody. It involved accounting, engineering, and member services. Our linemen had to document what they were doing. Every employee pitched in to make sure we got the full 75% back from FEMA. This was important to us because we wanted to make sure this storm had no financial impact on our members. Everything we do is for them. I am very proud of the effort our employees provided to make this happen.”

WEC felt it was important to go above and beyond through this process to make sure there were no financial impacts on members.

“If an expense qualifies for FEMA reimbursement then we owe it to our members to fight for every eligible dollar in order to minimize potential rate impacts,” Kimbro says. “We don’t try to beat the system but we fight for every eligible dollar.”

The Work Continues

While WEC completed restoration on Oct. 19 last year, the work did not stop for the employees. Actually, it was just beginning. WEC started organizing the documentation for submission to FEMA.

WEC linemen Billy Watson and Tim Granger enjoy a hot meal after working for 12 to 14 hours daily to restore power to WEC members.

WEC submitted six projects for FEMA reimbursement, and FEMA breaks those projects down into categories such as debris removal, emergency protective measures, permanent work, and administrative costs.

Also, projects are organized by county, and WEC worked in Houston, Geneva, and Coffee counties. Organizing all the projects and presenting them in a way FEMA could interpret was a daunting task, but one made possible through planning and efforts to document the work.

“Our cooperative did a fantastic job throughout this process, especially our accounting and engineering departments lead by Lisa LeNoir and Jason Thrash,” Kimbro says.

WEC’s Vice President of Engineering and Operations Jason Thrash says that an experienced staff of employees made the recovery effort a success.

WEC lineman Allen Langford surveys some damage left behind from Hurricane Michael.

“Several of our employees have had experience with these situations before and that experience proved to be very valuable,” Thrash says. “Also, the experiences that other electric cooperatives have had in FEMA events and the network we have with them helped us through this process.”

Kimbro says the sharing of knowledge between electric cooperatives is invaluable during storm recovery. “It is one of the many strengths of our electric cooperative family,” he says.

CEO Les Moreland says everyone at WEC pulled together during the storm recovery, and that made all the difference.

“I think we found out how strong we are as a cooperative, and we couldn’t have found that out without a traumatic event like Hurricane Michael,” Moreland says. “The big thing is, we have a great team that works together, and we have great partnerships. Without the teamwork and the partnerships, it can’t be done. You have to have both to handle an event of this magnitude. I am extremely proud of our employees and the professional, dedicated effort they provided while recovering from Hurricane Michael.”

WEC housed and fed almost 300 linemen from across the state for nine days following Hurricane Michael.