EPB hopes to recover most of up to $35 million in storm damages from FEMA

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / In the wake of the EF3 Tornado on Easter Sunday night the parking lot at Hamilton Place Mall has become a staging area for the personal and equipment engaged in restoring services to the effected areas. The site was photographed on April 21, 2020.

Last month's tornadoes may end up costing EPB up to $35 million to repair broken poles, lines and equipment for both its power and broadband services - the most expensive storm in the utility's history.

But the Chattanooga utility hopes to recover most of the damage expenses from the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the federal disaster declaration, which can cover up to 75% of such expenses.

Greg Eaves, chief financial officer for EPB, told the utility's board Friday that the repair costs continue to mount from the series of seven tornadoes that ripped through EPB's 600-square-mile area on Easter Sunday night and knocked out power to over 60,000 EPB customers.

EPB initially estimated last month that the storms would cost about $28 million in extra repair costs, but Eaves said the ongoing work is likely to have a final price tag of over $30 million "and maybe as high as $35 million." EPB is eligible to have up to 75% of such public expenses paid by FEMA following the disaster declaration last month.

"We've restored power to everyone and we're finishing up the fiber restoration," EPB President David Wade said. "We've had to continue throughout the month to finish the rebuilt process for some of the cables, intelliruptors and other equipment that we didn't initially have to replace or rebuild to get power and fiber back up and running."

EPB ended up replacing more than 160 miles of fiber cable and splicing over 4,300 individual fibers. Utility crews scrapped about 700 transformers and recycled 117,000 pounds of metal from equipment damaged during the storm, Wade said.

The storm repairs were made while work crews maintained social distancing to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The coronavirus shut down stores, restaurants and other non-essential businesses last month and pushed power sales by EPB to the lowest level in more than a decade.

"We're just off the charts on how low our energy sales were (in April) compared with the last 10 years," Eaves said. "This was the lowest kilowatt-hour sales we've seen for any month."

EPB revenues through the first 10 months of the year were $21 million belowyear-ago levels.

EPB spokesman J.Ed. Marston said the decrease occurred across all customer classes, including residential, commercial, and industrial.

"The primary factors for this decrease were very mild weather along with the business activity that was reduced because of the COVID crisis," he said.

Despite the drop in power sales, more EPB customers continue to sign up for high-speed internet service through EPB Fiber Optics. Since its start a decade ago, EPB's telecommunications services have attracted 110,000 customers.

Wade said March and April were two of EPB's best months ever for internet sales.

But among those EPB fiber optic customers, only 47,000 take one of EPB's video services.

"We're still seeing growth," Eaves said. "As customers drop TV and video services, they are keeping our internet."

Wade said EPB works with customers to find the best streaming or TV offer to meet household needs.

"If we can help someone migrate to a streaming service that is better for them, we'll do our best to help them find what makes the most sense for them," Wade said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.