From Kentucky Public Radio’s Tony McVeigh
The Kentucky Public Service Commission is preparing to release a comprehensive review of utility company responses to two natural disasters that recently struck the state.
In September 2008, fierce winds from the remnants of Hurricane Ike swept across Kentucky, causing four deaths and almost $600 million in damage. Four months later, an ice storm of historic proportions slammed the state, killing 36 people and causing another $616 million in damage. Senator David Boswell of Owensboro says it was a nasty one-two punch.
“You know, you’re talking about, collectively, within just a matter of a few months, a total of $1.211 billion in damage and roughly 40 recorded deaths relevant to these two issues,” said Boswell.
And Paducah Sen. Bob Leeper says the extent of the damage – particularly from the ice storm, which left 770,000 Kentuckians without power – was misunderstood by many.
“I don’t think people realized it wasn’t the power lines in the middle of the street that were falling on people’s houses,” said Leeper. “It was the actual major transmission lines that affected large areas of the state. Some had the large ice. Some – theirs were affected and they couldn’t figure it out because they didn’t have as much ice. But it was those large transmission lines that were actually laying at the bottom of the river.”
In March, with lawmakers clamoring for an assessment of how utilities responded to the disasters, the Kentucky Public Service Commission’s Jeff Derouen announced the launch of a comprehensive review covering both weather events.
“Which include construction standards for overhead electric lines, underground electric service, electric system maintenance practices, vegetation management, restoration operations/preparedness, financial cost recovery, customer relations, local government/elected official relations, public information, individual emergency preparedness, telecommunications infrastructure and water and sewer system operations,” said Derouen.
Eight months later, the almost two hundred page report is being finalized for release. In a preview for lawmakers in Frankfort, Derouen says the report will include a price tag for placing all electric utilities underground.
“It’s about $217 billion,” Derouen told the Subcommittee on Regulated Utilities. “That is both transmission and distribution. And it also should note, there are some transmission lines that the science doesn’t exist yet to underground, even if we so chose.”
Derouen says property service connections to homes and businesses were found to be a weak link in the electric system. And the report makes this suggestion for those who lose power during a major disaster.
“It’s probably important for every person to contact their utility when they lose their power, but only do it once,” said Derouen. “Our experience is that the utilities do take those and put them into their systems and the more times that you call, it does not move you to the top of their list. It only clogs up their phone lines.”
Derouen says the report also recommends utility companies participate in mock disaster operations.
“Those that had participated with their communities in the exercises that all emergency management areas had done, were not looking for numbers, looking for people, having a hard time communicating during the storm,” said Derouen.
Once the report is made public, Derouen says utility companies in Kentucky will have three months to respond. The PSC will then review the responses and share its findings with lawmakers and the governor.
“The intention of this report is to allow policymakers in the state – both legislative and executive – and the utilities to look at what happened, what occurred, what we can learn from that and how we can move forward,” said Derouen.
The utility companies will likely have the final word on the disasters. Several have already notified the PSC of their intent to try to recoup disaster cleanup costs through rate hikes.