Cumberland Times-News

Local News

April 27, 2013

Post-storms, area officials mull tactics for disasters

CUMBERLAND — Hurricane Sandy in October and the summer derecho, both which wrought havoc on Allegany County last year, caused emergency officials to re-evaluate emergency responses and taught a lesson in how the costs of disasters are borne by federal, state and local governments.

Disaster management is cyclic in nature, beginning and ending with mitigation efforts. The four elements of the cycle may be defined as mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery, emergency services officials said.

The costs associated with disasters are complex.

If a presidential declaration of disaster is issued following an incident, Federal Emergency Management Agency works with each impacted jurisdiction to identify allowable costs for reimbursement from the federal government, provided a threshold of estimated costs is met.  

The threshold determined on Oct. 1, 2012, was based on the Consumer Price Index adjustments for Federal Fiscal Year 2013 per jurisdiction; the statewide per capita indicator was determined to be $1.37, and countywide per capita indicator was established at $3.45.  

Allegany County’s population is estimated to be 75,087,

with a corresponding threshold of $259,050.15.

The reimbursement is made at 75 percent of the identified and approved costs and includes categories such as emergency protective measures and emergency work, officials said.

Costs are calculated utilizing a FEMA equipment schedule as well as actual salary costs for approved overtime hour, though regular hours are not generally reimbursed).

Following Hurricane Sandy, debris clearance hours, both regular and overtime, were allowed, county officials said.

“Some disasters are so frequent, however, that the government cannot reimburse after each occurrence. As an example, snowfall totals must exceed historic measurements by a certain percentage to qualify for potential reimbursement, and the incident must be declared a disaster under presidential declaration. Each disaster is also defined by qualifying reimbursement parameters that may differ according to the event,”  a county press release from Susan Lee said. Lee is chief of emergency management services.

Once FEMA determines the allowable costs and reimbursement is made, the county, municipality, organization or volunteer entity absorbs the remaining costs, officials said.

Should a local disaster occur that is not eligible for presidential disaster declaration, then those entities absorb the total costs of recovery.

“Relevant to Hurricane Sandy, damage expenses deemed eligible by FEMA for reimbursement included debris removal, emergency public safety measures and infrastructure repair. Flood-related damages were not eligible, and any work associated with flood response was not recognized for reimbursement purposes. ... Eligible expenses totaled $97,448.56,” county documents said. FEMA reimbursements totaled $73,485.49.  

County crews moved quickly to open roads after the summer storm. Because most property losses in the county were insured, it actually made it more difficult to get state and federal disaster aid.

Of 60,000 structures in the county, as many as 18,000 were without power during the afternoon of June 30.

While cooling centers were opened in Little Orleans, Cresaptown and Keyser, W.Va., few residents took advantage of the centers, said Dick DeVore, the county’s emergency services director.

“We’re a close-knit community and most people took shelter with friends and family,” he said.

Officials said the centers might have been more heavily used if the storm had knocked out power to whole counties, as happened in West Virginia.

DeVore has said one thing the county needs to address is the fact that some gas stations weren’t operational between Hancock and Cumberland. He suggested looking at ways to ensure generators were available so pumps could operate.

DeVore said it was only natural that with no power on some of the hottest days of the year, people would be frustrated. “I can’t say enough about how hard our staff worked,” he said.

Also working hard were Potomac Edison crews and crews called in from other areas, including crews called in from as far away as Canada, said John Emerick, a Potomac Edison spokesman, at the time.

One big problem for the utility was the loss of substations, including one in LaVale, which was taken out by a large tree falling into it, he said.

Utilities are required to act to restore power to the largest number of people as quickly as possible, which is why a utility focuses on high-population area outages and tends to move into outlying areas with smaller numbers of customers last, he said.

At 10 p.m on June 29, Allegany County had reported 8,700 outages, but that number climbed to more than 20,000 by 11:15 p.m. The city of Cumberland was hard hit, with about 10,000 of those outages.

By contrast in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Potomac Edison had 285,000 of 395,000 customers out of power because of the storm, Emerick said.  

Hurricane Sandy also caused widespread problems.

First-responders throughout the region dealt with a variety of situations brough on by the monster storm that knocked out electrical service for thousands of customers throughout the Potomac Edison service area in Western Maryland and nearby West Virginia.

A snow emergency plan remained in effect for hours in Garrett County, including a section of Allegany County from Clarysville to the Garrett County line.

The Allegany County 911 emergency center handled nearly 100 calls for service from midnight into the late morning after the storm, most of which were calls for downed power lines and tree limbs and flooded basements.

Contact Matthew Bieniek at mbieniek@times-news.com.

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