Storm costs continue to rise

WESTFIELD – Westfield Gas & Electric crews are still dealing with damage cause by the Oct. 29 storm, as the cost of that recovery effort exceeds $2.5 million.
General Manager Dan Howard reported to the Municipal Light Board Wednesday that the utility is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to recover as much of those funds as allowed.
Howard said that the utility is entitled to 100 percent reimbursement of funds spent during the first 92 hours of the emergency response. Reimbursement drops to 75 percent following that initial period.
Howard said the department continues to negotiate with FEMA because the extent of damage caused by the freak storm pushed recovery efforts to nearly 12 days.
“The department intends to challenge that timeframe and we currently have no information as to when we can expect to receive any reimbursement,” Howard said.
Andrew Banas, WG&E chief financial officer, said the department has used funds from the electric stabilization account to pay for the massive recovery effort. The municipal utility will replace that funding as it is reimbursed by FEMA.
“This is money we have to front,” Howard said. “It may take another month to get a good handle on the final costs, then we have to go through a long reimbursement process.”
FEMA recently reimbursed local communities for money spent for snow and ice removal during the blizzard last January and has yet to begin to issue funds related to the June 1 tornado that ripped through the region.
“We did not have a FEMA incident in Westfield for 20 years,” Howard said. “Now, this is the fourth FEMA incident we’ve had in the last 18 months. Andy and I checked our records and we cannot find anything remotely that caused as much damage as this (October 29) storm.”
Howard said that the department was able to respond quickly to the disaster because of mutual aid agreements with utilities outside the region. Typically mutual aid is drawn from the closest source as possible, but because the October storm was a regional event, those usual sources of aid were not available.
“We put a lot of procedures and policies in place during the last five years that paid off,” Howard said. “We had contracts for housing and food vendors, which was a good thing because every hotel room in the area was booked by people without power and heat.
“Westfield State (University) helped the city by putting the shelter up there. We put some people up there. The college provided meals,” Howard said. “We’ve always had a great relationship with the college and that came to light.”
Howard said that emergency response planners were accessing where to begin with the recovery work early Sunday morning when hunger caused an epiphany.
“The power was out across the city. Nothing was open, there was nothing to eat. We determined that the immediate needs were to get supermarkets open so people could get food, to get gas stations open, to get power to Noble Hospital and the emergency shelters,” he said.
The city lost three of the high-power transmissions lines carrying electricity into the city and 13 of the 14 primary circuits distributing that power within the city during the height of the storm.
WG&E crews, along with crews from Greenville, N.C., Canada and other Massachusetts municipal utilities worked 18-20 hour days.
“Those crews were doing a month’s worth of work every day for the first 12 days,” Howard said. “We’re still doing some work. We have four crews clearing lines, work that will probably go another 60 days.”

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