Cooperative Leaders to Congress: Streamline Disaster Relief Programs
Cooperative Leaders to Congress: Streamline Disaster Relief Programs

Brad Kimbro, CEO of Wiregrass Electric Cooperative, tells a Senate subcommittee that federal aid often takes too long to reach electric cooperatives struggling to rebuild their systems after hurricanes and other major disasters. (Photo: Denny Gainer/NRECA)

Federal aid is critical for electric cooperatives trying to repair their systems after a disaster, but to help rural communities recover more quickly, key programs must be streamlined, the head of an Alabama cooperative told a Senate committee Wednesday.

“Disaster response is not just about physical damage,” Brad Kimbro, CEO of Wiregrass Electric Cooperative in Hartford, told the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee’s Rural Development and Energy Subcommittee. “These storms take an emotional toll on our communities and our co-op employees.”

In 2018, Hurricane Michael struck the eastern part of the cooperative’s service area and “resulted in extensive damage to infrastructure that required rapid repair or rebuilding,” he said, adding that the total cost of the destruction was about $8 million.

“We are grateful to have been able to work within our (existing) Rural Utilities Service work plan to fund the recovery efforts and ultimately secure reimbursement through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) public assistance process,” Kimbro testified at a hearing titled “State of Rural Infrastructure: Emergency Response, Recovery, and Resilience.”

“The importance of these programs can hardly be overstated. Without them, higher electricity bills would have placed a financial burden on the communities we serve, and our most vulnerable members would have felt the most.”

Although cooperatives value these programs, they are not always easy to access in a timely manner, he said.

“The RUS electric loan program is not designed for immediate need situations,” he said. “Securing a RUS electric infrastructure loan takes time and extensive paperwork.”

“An electric utility focused on responding and rebuilding after a hurricane or other severe weather event needs access to capital quickly. For this reason, taking out a new Russian electricity infrastructure loan for reconstruction is not an option.”

Even federal programs designed to provide immediate assistance often experience long delays, he said.

FEMA disaster assistance helped WEC recover from Hurricane Michael, but some cooperatives in Alabama and Florida have had to wait years for help after a hurricane or storm, he said.

“This is a big problem for these cooperatives, especially when they have to take out large loans or draw on lines of credit to cover the immediate costs of reconstruction efforts and to return the lives of their communities and residents to normal as quickly as possible,” Kimbro said.

“If electric cooperatives have to borrow to cover these conversion costs until they are repaid, it may mean years of interest accruing, the cost of which is borne by the cooperative’s consumer members.”

He urged senators to support the FEMA Loan Interest Payment Relief Act, which would require FEMA to reimburse electric cooperatives and local governments for the interest they paid on loans they had to take out to rebuild their systems.

Erin Kelly is an editor at NRECA.

By Aurora