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Discussion: Aftermath of Parkersburg Tornado

posted on May 29, 2008

The twister that ripped apart Parkersburg featured winds speeds in excess of 200 miles an hour. The trauma left in the wake is still apparent and twofold. There is the obvious physical destruction, and there is the more subtle, but just as devastating, emotional toll.

The process of renewal would seem to be underway, but questions do remain. We'll look at those tonight. How much progress can be made in the next few weeks and months? And what are the longer term effects of the stricken communities? And what has the rest of Iowa learned from this experience? Here to address these and other questions are Barry Campbell, Vice President of Delivery from MidAmerican Energy and David Miller who is Director of Iowa Homeland Security. 

Yeager: The process of renewal would seem to be underway, but questions do remain. We'll look at those tonight. How much progress can be made in the next few weeks and months? And what are the longer term effects of the stricken communities? And what has the rest of Iowa learned from this experience?

Here to address these and other questions are Barry Campbell, Vice President of Delivery from MidAmerican Energy and David Miller who is Director of Iowa Homeland Security. Gentlemen, welcome tonight. Barry, first I want to start with you. What is the status of the lights getting them back on in Parkersburg tonight?

Campbell: Currently we have 50 customers who are not able to take service but we have mobile generators there available for them. That will be finished tonight so basically all customers who can receive power do have power either in a mobile generator setting or on a permanent setting. So, we're just trying to wrap that up and make it more permanent for them tonight and tomorrow.

Yeager: Is that quicker than what you thought it would be or is that about, given the magnitude of the storm, about how you thought delivery would be put together?

Campbell: Given the magnitude we're probably right on time. We always want to try to improve because it is a disaster type area and you want to be able to help people out as quickly as you can and we'll certainly look at this and see if there is anything else that we can learn from this kind of experience because it did wipe out a tremendous amount of systems. Our prayers and thoughts go out to those community members.

Yeager: David, where do you start when a storm like this happens?

Miller: Well, we start in a couple of areas. There is always the need for immediate assistance and we work with community based, faith based organizations, Red Cross, Salvation Army and those people and they come in quickly and that is usually the first level of help, citizens helping citizens and those organizations. Then we begin to look at what the Governor's proclamation will bring in support of local governments and it brings state resources.

Yeager: And that would be the disaster declaration that has been made?

Miller: And that brings the Department of Public Safety and they have been up there, the Department of Natural Resources and Transportation for debris removal and the National Guard. And then we also begin to look, and we did very quickly in this case because we knew the level of devastation and request for a presidential, federal declaration and that brings recovery dollars into the area and we're well down the road in that process.

Yeager: Does that supplement what the state has spent or do they pick up some of the tab or how does that work?

Miller: Well, the state is fairly limited in its financial resources to do this. A couple of years ago in the ice storm of 2007 at that time we passed a state individual assistance program and it helps those that are most in need within 130% of federal poverty. But the federal programs go beyond that and they help individuals, they're also programs for businesses and business recovery, they are programs for farmers and farm recovery in addition to individual and family assistance.

Yeager: If I was a person who lost a home chances are I've heard from somebody either trickle down from your office or from the federal government at this point do you think?

Miller: A little bit, we've done some community meetings up there. I have my staff on the ground up there, the federal officials have shown up from FEMA and the probably more important in a tornado we have a lot of insured loss. The federal programs, the state programs really take care of uninsured loss. So, the insurance companies have been very busy and a number of them have been up there trying to settle their insurance claims quickly because that is the first step.

Yeager: To get a check so they can begin to do something. Well, you've got your order of things that happen but Barry, you also have an order as an electric company. And this is pretty much your area was the one that was impacted, about a 43 mile path from this storm. Where does MidAmerican start when something like this happens?

Campbell: It actually starts before the storm. We have a storm plan in place that we practice and do simulations on to make sure we have people in place and assigned roles. And so when something comes up like this we get prepared, we look at the weather forecast and we try to anticipate where it would be. It's a little harder to do that with tornadoes because the cells don't always develop where you think.

And so what we try to do is we stage resources ahead of time in various parts of the state and we have pre-planning calls, we have people set up on these calls to explain where we think the path will be, what we can do, what resources we have available and where we need to move them to and so when it does activate we can respond.

Yeager: So, they're kind of like an on-call system of alright Butler County, it looks like this storm Sunday afternoon, you'll know this maybe Thursday or Friday and have a conference call ahead of that and so those that work there would be aware. And I would assume that's some of the same thing with your office?

Miller: We work very closely with the National Weather Service and begin to look at those predictions as they're coming through. Often there is a coordination call with local emergency management coordinators saying this is what the weather looks like where you're going to enter an active pattern, you might put your storm spotters on notice and be aware of what's coming your way and then as the warnings and the watches come out they get very active and we anticipate it that way.

Yeager: Now, when I spent a couple of days in Parkersburg I saw some MidAmerican trucks but also some that were from out-of-state, Minnesota and Nebraska. How do they get involved? They're not watching Iowa storms but how do you get them here?

Campbell: No, we actually call them ahead of time if we see the storm develop in particular areas and we're not sure that we have all the resources immediately available, we go ahead and start talking to them a day beforehand, the night beforehand to see if we can start sending crews this way in a specific area.

Yeager: Is that something that has developed over time that that's the process that is needed, a policy change has happened?

Campbell: I wouldn't call it a policy change. It was actually more the utilities saying we all need to partner together to resolve these issues and if Minnesota or Nebraska has a similar situation we would also respond in the same manner, be glad to if we can do that.

There is a Midwest Mutual Assistance Group, in fact, we utilized that too to leverage some of the resources. After the path had gone through their particular areas they were able to use these resources to come forward and try to help us out to get through the storm.

Yeager: So, what is next for your crews? We have homes that obviously can't have any service delivered to them because they're not there. You said you've got some generators for those that could. Are you at a wait moment now after you get the main transmission lines or what is it that you do?

Campbell: Absolutely not, we had to get the main transmission on to be able to get a sub-station that picked up 80% of the customers right away. That was kind of a key critical path for us. So, resources were funneled to do that.

But at the same time we built what we called a distribution system which is to be able to serve the homes. So, when the sub-station was energized we were able to immediately turn on the power within those areas for the homes that could take power.

Yeager: And we are talking electrical out but there's also gas that is involved with this. When a storm happens your office has to coordinate and public safety has to coordinate, it's a matter of we've got a storm here. Do you just shut a valve off? Is that a switch that's done at an operations center that you do? How do you make it safe for anybody to go in to begin some of this?

Campbell: Well, what we basically did is called a time border station and that was actually damaged in the storm. It was shut off automatically from our control center and then what we did, we went out there and physically checked the damage and went through and capped it at that point.

We had to turn the whole system off to make sure we understood what the damage was. Once we understood that damage and we have done the reconstruction of the line, we're starting to pressurize the line to be able to check it. We had to check it for leaks.

That's the last thing we wanted to do is have a gas leak so very slowly bring the pressure up, we test it and then we move through the system to the point that we can. The relighting for our customers will begin tomorrow for those who are available for that.

Yeager: How much of what Barry is saying -- I'm hoping that's not news to you, you know most of that. When did that come together that emergency management needs to get together whether it's power or water or light or gas?

Miller: In the same way we kind of anticipate it whether it's an ice storm or a tornado or severe weather, we anticipate needing utilities. We work it two ways.

We work with the Iowa Utilities Commission and they have a presence in our emergency operation center and that is the liaison to the utilities whether it's rural electric coops or MidAmerican or Alliant. And then we have a direct relationship with them.

If the storm is really bad we get them on a conference call, talk about the level of damage and how they're going to progress through the restoration. And in this case, in the tornado we had a representative from MidAmerican Energy.

Yeager: Is it too early to grade the response to this storm by all parties or if you had to give an initial rough grade? Can you give that yet?

Miller: Well, it's always the responses in view of the nature and scope of the disaster. This tornado is one of the worst we've seen in a long time. The other thing that's part of it is local governments respond first and every indication I have is the local government responded very effectively. And we're progressing through.

It takes some time to do that but in visiting communities they're making a lot of progress, they're taking their time to make sure citizens can go through the debris and recover their personal items as best they can. And then we'll start walking through the rest of the recovery and we've already made the plans for doing that, looking at debris, debris management, working with the insurance commission and the insurance companies about how that works and then working with FEMA about what programs they bring.

Yeager: How do you smooth all of the red tape that is involved in something like this because you've just mentioned so many institutions I can't even recite them back. How do you get that where you could make it as easy as possible for someone who has lost everything?

Miller: It's difficult because there's a lot of loss documentation. I was in New Hartford last night and we were talking to citizens about simply registering for FEMA assistance. The first step is to simply register. You get asked a lot of questions. You get asked about your financial status, you get asked about your insurance and level of insurance.

Well, with tornado victims a lot of that documentation is gone. So, you make the best of what you have and then you walk through the processes together and it does take time and there is a bureaucracy involved and that's where a lot of the frustration sets in. But the community has a sense of working it together and we're trying to work in partnership with them, make sure people get the assistance they need and then walk through those processes.

Yeager: And this is something that can happen anywhere in the state and you were mentioning the number of -- you've had a busy last 15 months.

Miller: We have. We've had six federal declarations in 15 months. Other states are worse but that's a lot for us. We were averaging almost two a year and six in 15 months is a pretty heavy season.

Yeager: What does that mean for your office? Just a lot of work?

Miller: It is.

Yeager: Is there a change in policies or procedures that have come from that?

Miller: It's actually both. Go back to the ice storm of 2007, we did a lot of work with the rural electric cooperatives. We did a lot of work with communities on critical infrastructure. It has resulted in some changes in policy, some implementation of new standards and I can't speak to those as much as the electric folks can. But we try to make the system better by looking at opportunities to mitigate the damages to improve upon the system. At the same time is how do we streamline our processes for delivering assistance. What preparedness things can we do? Can we make community alerting better? And can we help citizens prepare better? So, all of that comes into play.

Yeager: Is it a little too early, Barry, to put a dollar figure on anything that's happened yet? Do you have an early estimate on what type of amount of damage we've seen?

Campbell: We expect somewhere around $7 million.

Yeager: And that's just for your company?

Campbell: That's just for the company.

Yeager: Now, do you get any reimbursement from the federal level?

Campbell: No, sir.

Yeager: Why is that?

Campbell: Because we're a privately held company and so we absorb that cost.

Yeager: From those who are trying to turn the switch on tonight or tomorrow will they notice anything long-term from this storm on any of their -- they'll see some new power poles on the south side of town or on the west side of town -- is there anything that they'll notice differently after this storm?

Campbell: For the Parkersburg area -- no, what we're doing is putting back our permanent service as we would and long-term is to completely rebuild the system once some of the debris areas where there's just no houses or any infrastructure, we will follow along right behind that and make sure that when the customers are ready we'll serve them.

Yeager: Looking ahead, we're already in our final minute and a half. It's hard to believe that, David, but what long-term effects do you think we'll see? We always talk about the Charles City tornado or the impact it's had on Belmond or Muscatine last year. What do we think is going to be the long-term impact of this storm?

Miller: Well, we want to help the community recover to the full extent. The goal is always that they recover to pre-disaster conditions or better and that will be the goal that we walk through here. We're also trying to learn from lessons in other communities and probably the closest one we're looking at now is what happened in Greensburg, Kansas. Their tornado was devastating and they lost their community and they have been able to rebuild. We look at the lessons here in Iowa whether it was the Woodward tornado or what we had in Bradgate a few years ago and what can we do to help the community survive. And then we'll work with the federal officials, we'll work with small business administration, private industry to try to make all that happen.

Yeager: Final piece of advice in the last thirty seconds -- in about two weeks, maybe three weeks the media is going to be gone; some of those volunteers are going to be gone from that area. What advice do you have for those that have loved ones that are still in Parkersburg? What do you have for them, a message?

Miller: Persistence, having faith in the system. It takes a while to walk through it but we'll help in any way that we can. And it is a team effort, it isn't just government resources. We really do use private enterprise, we use faith based organizations, we use the Red Cross and Salvation Army and it is that team effort and if there are problem areas keep calling, be persistent and keep telling us and we'll do the best we can to help people out.

Yeager: Alright, David Miller, Director of Iowa Homeland Security and Barry Campbell, Vice President of Delivery for MidAmerican Energy, gentlemen, I thank you for coming in tonight.


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