Sevier County utility damage brings big bill

1/27/2017

Utilities in Sevier County took about $5.75 million in damage from November’s wildfire, according to figures compiled by county Emergency Management Director John Mathews.

“These numbers have most likely changed,” he said via email. “Once FEMA arrived they went to each entity themselves.”

The revised tally won’t be available for some time. But federal disaster funds should cover 75 percent of the final cost, Mathews said.

“Typically, the state will help us out even further and pay 12.5 (percent) on the local share (I have not heard if they will on this one yet),” he wrote. “Unfortunately, there are some costs that are not FEMA-eligible and, therefore, they will get denied.”

Electric, water and gas providers reported a variety of damage. Of utilities serving Sevier County, only Gatlinburg’s water and sewer department failed to provide information to the News Sentinel.

Hardest hit was the Sevier County Electric System. At dawn on Nov. 28 the electric system had about 56,500 customers, but by day’s end that had dropped by about 3,000, said Superintendent Allen Robbins.

“We are roughly assessing we’re somewhere around $4.5 million in damage to our utility infrastructure,” he said. More than 2,400 buildings were destroyed or damaged, but some of those were buildings with multiple units, and, therefore, multiple electric meters.

Mathews’ compilation puts the electric systems total at $5 million of damage.

The electric system is eligible for federal disaster funding, so electric customers should not expect a rate hike to cover the damage, Robbins said.

“We will be incorporated in with that FEMA declaration, so we’ll recover up to 75 percent of what we lost, we feel like, in the declared areas,” he said.

The $4.5 million figure is only the tally of losses; actual replacement cost will be higher, Robbins said. So far workers have set 414 new poles, but no major changes to the system are planned, he said.

“In certain areas we replaced some of the wood structures with steel structures, especially with the secondary transmission lines we have from substation to substation,” Robbins said.

The utility will have to redo its mapping system, since it shows accounts that no longer exist. But all of the major electric infrastructure has been repaired.

“Every customer that can still be served is back on now,” Robbins said. Some underground work remains to be done, but that won’t affect active service, he said.

Having above-ground lines made the electric system more vulnerable to fire than other utilities, but also made repairs go faster, Robbins said. Twenty five electric crews and 15 tree-trimming crews worked together, with more than half of those coming from other utilities, he said.

Robbins said he is very appreciative of outside help, and for the gratitude of customers.

“I don’t believe our crews paid for hardly a meal, because the restaurants and everyone were feeding them,” he said. Robbins himself had only been superintendent for four months when the fire hit.

“Trial by fire, I guess you could say, literally and figuratively,” he said.

There was “fairly significant” impact on local electrical utilities, but not to Tennessee Valley Authority’s property, TVA Public Relations Manager Jim Hopson said.

“We do have high-voltage transmission lines in Sevier County, but we were very fortunate that none of our equipment was damaged by the fires,” he said. “Local utilities are their own organizations, so they will be funding that themselves.”

For the Sevier County Utility District, which provides natural gas to Sevier and part of Blount counties, the real difficulty lay in the fire’s aftermath.

“We actually turned the gas valve off and terminated service to the city of Gatlinburg on the night of the 28th,” said President Matt Ballard. Physical damage was limited to the burned properties themselves; the cost to the utility lies in restoring service.

“For a gas utility and gas line service, it’s not simply turning the gas back on,” he said. Workers had to go back to each customer’s location and turn on service, and light pilot lights while the property owner was present. That helped assure gas didn’t flow at any burned properties.

Restoring service to all customers cost a little over $500,000 in labor and other costs, Ballard said.

“That’s going to continue to grow, because we’re looking at costs we will have involved as these properties are built back and we’re going back out to reestablish that service,” he said.

The tally listed by Mathews is $750,000.

Ballard’s 71 employees worked 14- to 15-hour days from Nov. 28 through Dec. 10, with only one Sunday off; they were helped by 31 workers from other utilities, he said.

“We had everybody working, both inside and outside, during that time,” Ballard said.

Ballard hadn’t spoken with FEMA representatives, but had talked to Tennessee’s corresponding agency.

“What’s not covered by our insurance, hopefully TEMA will pick up,” Ballard said.

Forty-eight of the Sevier County Water Department’s 1,750 customers suffered some fire damage, and 25 customers were lost, according to Superintendent Roger Sims, via Administrative Assistant Misty Green.

“Most have been repaired. Some will be done as rebuild takes place,” Sims wrote in response to questions. Damage, which occurred mostly in Wears Valley, is estimated at $100,000.

“We have insurance to cover things like this,” Sims wrote. “Don’t know about FEMA yet. No rate changes as a result.”

It was fairly easy for the Webb Creek Utility District to cut off water service to the 98 customers who had structures burned down. Altogether the utility served 595 around Gatlinburg.

But the office of the utility district itself was damaged by falling tree limbs, for about $5,000 damage, according to Office Manager Karen Huffaker.

“Plus we’ve had to replace meters, and things like that,” she said.

Total repair and replacement costs are probably close to $13,000, but the district is still getting estimates on roof work. Meters won’t be replaced until customers decide whether to rebuild.

Webb Creek Utility District hopes FEMA will cover most of the final cost. Huffaker said.

“Pigeon Forge was real fortunate. We didn’t lose but like one water meter, about four meter boxes and a couple of lids,” city Public Works Director Mark Miller said. The nearest serious property damage was to cabins just outside city limits, he said.

Mathews’ total shows only $5,000 damage to Pigeon Forge’s utility infrastructure.

The city serves 4,076 residential and 1,511 commercial water customers with 181 miles of water mains and a wastewater plant. Pigeon Forge also supplies up to 1.5 million gallons of water per day to Gatlinburg, through a pumping station.

“That is owned by Gatlinburg but it’s inside Pigeon Forge city limits,” Miller said. The pump station roof caught fire, and power went down; but Pigeon Forge workers put up a temporary roof and got the pumps going again, he said.

Damage would have been much worse if the wind hadn’t died down and rain arrived, Miller said.

The Gatlinburg Street Department reported $1 million in damage, and the Sevier County Highway Department $80,000, according to Mathews’ figures.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Jim Gaines

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