Vermont utilities hoping to receive FEMA funds for Christmas storm

FEMA teams have been out assessing damage from the winter storm that left thousands of Vermonters without power Christmas weekend.
Published: Jan. 12, 2023 at 6:07 AM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - FEMA teams have been out assessing damage from the winter storm that left thousands of Vermonters without power Christmas weekend.

Vermont Emergency Management last week asked the federal agency for a disaster assessment, saying they had identified at least $2M in costs from nonprofit and municipal utilities. That does not take into account Green Mountain Power’s storm expenses, the largest utility in the state. FEMA is now reviewing the financial records for the nine counties hit by the storm.

Washington Electric Co-op says the storm put them over their $300,000 budget. Vermont Electric Co-op estimates the storm cost about $1.5 million, which is over two times their storm budget.

While some line crews from neighboring states helped out, others were so tied up with their own problems making mutual aid tough. “If you saw what was going on in Maine and New York, at the same time, mutual aid was more limited than usual because it was a region-wide event. And it was a holiday weekend,” said VEC’s Andrea Cohen.

In the end, Washington Electric Co-op customers were the last to get their power back. “We’re likely to see the cost of those storm restoration efforts increasing over time, both because of the severity of the storm, also because of the just cost of materials go up as they knew for everything,” he said.

Like most industries, the supply chain is impacting utilities. Porter and Vermont Electric Co-op both say they were stocked up in fear of slow delivery times, which paid off. But Porter says they had 38 poles break, a number he believes is a record. They had enough materials to restore power for this storm but they’re working with suppliers to get replacements in as fast as possible. “It’s been a real challenge for over a year with some of these key components and the lead times for them have been, you know, up to a year or more out from when you order them,” Porter said.

“This storm showed, again, the importance of our maintenance plan, of our pre-trimming -- because when you have a window into that, like this, and second down power lines and trees that are taking down power lines, it does reinforce the importance of investing in our vegetation management,” Cohen said.

And for the 11 municipalities represented in the Vermont Public Power Supply Authorities, a few saw higher costs than planned, too. “Cost impacts of about, you know, 1% on their budget. So, in the grand scheme of things, not nearly as hard hit as some of the other utility territories in the state. Yeah, but not insignificant costs either,” said the authority’s Julia Leopold.

Budgeting is a balancing act because utilities say they don’t want to charge ratepayers more than necessary. Some budget on an annual basis and others budget on a five-year basis. “I wouldn’t say that this is like, this wasn’t a straw that broke the camel’s back by any means. But it was just, you know, another added pressure that utilities are facing,” said Leopold.

That’s why she says many utilities are hopeful for FEMA funding, so they wouldn’t have to defer expenses for next year or have this storm be another reason for increasing rates for customers.

Vermont Emergency Management says the review will likely extend into next week and FEMA will be meeting with the utility companies, too. Once the assessment is complete Gov. Scott would send a request to be signed by President Biden.

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