How a Power Co-op Discovered the ‘Silver Lining’ to Disasters

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By Christine May, FEMA External Affairs, Region X

After four Presidential disasters in the last six and a half years, the West Oregon Electric Cooperative, Salem, Ore, can tell you a thing or two about dealing with adversity—and FEMA.

This small power co-op serves 4,300 customers in the remote, timbered lands of Northwest Oregon. It’s a beautiful but a challenging terrain. “We call the trees the blessed curse,” said Marc Farmer, WOEC’s general manager.

As a nonprofit agency providing essential services, WOEC is eligible for federal disaster assistance.

Back in 2006, severe winds and falling trees took out a huge segment of a heavily-wooded transmission line. This certainly wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last. But with help from FEMA, the electric co-op found a way to end the cycle.

After commissioning a study, WOEC was able to show that undergrounding the line was not only highly cost-effective, it was the most sensible solution to the never-ending problem.

WOEC was facing its most expensive project ever: $6.2 million. Fortunately for the small utility, FEMA was able to cover a large portion using two types of hazard mitigation grants. It took time for the approvals and more than six months of construction, but by December 2009 the newly undergrounded line was fully energized.

Since then?

“The line has not faulted once since it was installed,” said Steve Scott, WOEC’s operations manager. “We accomplished exactly what we planned.”

According to the general manager, the new line is so reliable the co-op has been able to extend their service to even more people.

Perhaps the greatest system test came during the January 2012 storms.

“People expected to be out of service,” said Farmer, “but they weren’t.” In fact, Farmer got only one complaint. “One customer grumbled that he never even had a chance to use his brand new generator.”

FEMA hazard mitigation money has helped the co-op in other ways as well. During a 2007 flood, the co-op offices and substation were inundated. After agreeing to a property “buyout,” the agency moved its headquarters to higher ground. Congress also approved separate money to move the substation out of the flood zone.

Experience also has taught the co-op important lessons about record-keeping. In fact, Darlene McLeod, WOEC’s finance manager is in demand these days, explaining to other agencies what data FEMA will require after a disaster.

According to McLeod, one of the most important things is to keep track of the county where the work is located since FEMA declarations are always county-specific. In addition, McLeod recommends noting the time spent and the equipment used for each job.

“The more documentation you have, the better,” said McLeod. “That can be difficult when you’re in the throes of an emergency,” so McLeod has redesigned their time sheets to reflect the information that FEMA will require for reimbursement.

Other helpful records can include running outage reports, emails, mutual aid agreements and service contracts.

“Your memory will never do it,” said Scott. “You think you’ll never have a FEMA event and the next day it happens,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to be prepared.”

Just ask McLeod. “As soon as the lights flicker we start accounting for our time,” she said.

Last Updated: 
07/24/2014 - 16:00
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