PITTSBURG — In addition to giving an update on storm cleanup efforts Wednesday, officials responded to questions about some issues which may be of concern to those most affected by Monday’s storm.
As of early Wednesday afternoon, the National Weather Service had still not confirmed whether the storm which caused downed trees and power lines and structure damage in the Pittsburg area technically counted as a tornado.
Crawford County Emergency Manager Jason VanBecelaere said at a Wednesday morning press conference that he didn’t know if the storm being classified as a tornado or not will impact people’s insurance claims, although it doesn’t affect the county in its process of declaring an emergency and requesting relief from the state.
“When we declare with the state, that’s just giving us resources, you know, to fix some of our infrastructure stuff and then there will be another part that will help the individual eventually down the road,” VanBecelaere said. “There were some houses down on Langdon Lane that weren’t insured so there will be some individual assistance there later on.”
The Crawford County Emergency Management Department has verbally declared an emergency with the state, VanBecelaere said, and on Friday he will go before the Crawford County Commission with a formal declaration for the commissioners to sign. The next steps at that point will involve doing assessments of damage and making sure to keep track of all the manpower, time, and resources the county is using in its storm relief and cleanup efforts.
VanBecelaere said he thinks the damage from the storm will end up qualifying as an emergency eligible for relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“I think the state has declared already with FEMA because there are several counties here with flooding issues,” he said. “Neosho County I think and Labette County and Allen County have got some flooding issues going on right now, and they’re considering this all one disaster.”
VanBecelaere said more heavy rain, wind gusts, hail, and a slight tornado risk continued to be predicted through Friday.
KCP&L and Westar Energy Customer Solutions Manager Kari West also attended the press conference and discussed efforts to restore electricity to areas impacted by the storm.
“At the height of the storm we had about 2,800 customers without power,” West said. “By early Tuesday morning we had about three quarters of those issues resolved and then we moved on to our heavy focused areas.”
As of Wednesday morning, there were still 183 Westar customers without power, West said, with a large majority of these — more than 150 — located in one particularly hard hit area along 240th Street east of Pittsburg.
About 225 individuals, including 10 tree crews and 15 line crews, that came from throughout Westar and KCP&L’s service areas were “on the ground and behind the scenes working on storm coverage” on Wednesday, West said.
Power to all Westar customers in the area should be restored by noon Wednesday, West said, and a two mile stretch of transmission line along 260th Street that was taken down by the storm was expected to be back up by Thursday.
Sarah Runyon, public information manager for the City of Pittsburg, was also at the press conference and answered questions about the city’s exploration of the possibility of taking over providing electric power to residents, and how the city would handle the amount of work Westar is having to do following Monday’s storm if faced with a similar weather event.
“There’s a lot of factors involved” in the city’s process of studying whether electric municipalization is a viable option, Runyon said, “and one of the main factors is we need to make sure that we can respond to outages and that we would have the resources available to do that.”
In other municipalities where electricity is provided through the city, Runyon said, mutual aid agreements are one of the main ways of handling severe weather events and disasters.
“So there are roughly 118 other public power utilities in Kansas that potentially we would have agreements with,” Runyon said. “We would also have agreements with contractors and other electric utility providers across state lines that could come to our aid.”
Like VanBecelaere, Runyon pointed to federal resources from FEMA as another possible source of disaster relief.
“In the event of a major outage like what we’re experiencing now, where we would need to call in additional resources, municipalities have the ability to draw down FEMA reimbursement for those because we’re a local government agency,” Runyon said.
Pittsburg would be able to contract with outside electricity providers, she said, possibly even including Westar, and get substantial FEMA reimbursement for the cost.
“If we were to municipalize, we would also give Westar the opportunity to be one of those contractors to help us in the event of a major outage, and it would make sense for them to help us,” Runyon said, because Westar would still be providing electricity to areas right outside of Pittsburg’s service area.
The question of whether Pittsburg will go through with electric municipalization is “still a big ‘if,’” Runyon said. “It’s hard to say definitively what that scenario’s going to look like because we’re still investigating it.”
The City of Pittsburg has approved several agreements with consultants to study the possibility of taking over providing electric service to residents.