FEMA funding formulas shut North Plains Electric out of federal disaster assistance after a devastating ice storm. (Photo courtesy North Plains Electric)
FEMA funding formulas shut North Plains Electric out of federal disaster assistance after a devastating ice storm. (Photo courtesy North Plains Electric)

As a co-op job title, “manager of member services” can cover a lot of ground, especially at smaller co-ops. That’s certainly the case for Bill Carson, who holds that position at North Plains Electric Cooperative in Perryton, Texas.

Communications, government relations, and business development “are kind of my day-to-day duties,” Carson says. “I’m also manager of information technology. We’re a very small co-op.”

Last spring, Carson put on a decidedly different hat: lobbying federal officials in Washington, D.C., for more sensible policies on disaster assistance in rural areas.

The snow and ice storm that swept across the country last January hit North Plains Electric especially hard, breaking or toppling nearly 8,000 poles. About 40 percent of the distribution system was affected, and at one point, the co-op had 330 contract and mutual-aid workers helping its 40-person staff repair the widespread damage. Recovery costs, Carson says, approached $14 million.

But the rules and funding formulas used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) denied the co-op access to any of its disaster assistance. That meant North Plains Electric would have to eat the whole tab, and it was a big bite to swallow for a 7,000-meter co-op.

“We have way less members than that because we’re so rural,” Carson says. “We’ve got so many oil and gas and agribusiness accounts, and a lot of those have multiple meters.”

Run the numbers, and the tab settled at a whopping $7,800 per member to cover the costs of recovery. The co-op tapped its reserves and reallocated some of a previously approved Rural Utilities Service loan to meet the unexpected bills, Carson says, “but our equity’s going to go down, and it’ll have an impact on our margins.”

Meanwhile, the state of Oklahoma met FEMA’s funding threshold, and even a neighboring co-op qualified for emergency help.

Carson doesn’t begrudge his neighbors the assistance they received. But he does believe FEMA and Congress should take a hard look at disaster funding formulas based on state population.

That was the case he made when he and other co-op leaders met with Alex Amparo, FEMA’s assistant administrator for recovery, during NRECA’s annual Legislative Conference last spring.

“I directly asked the question: Do I need to tell Texas co-ops you’re not going to be there for us?” Carson recounted after the meeting. It was a pointed question, and it brought a careful response from the agency official.

“FEMA always appreciates the opportunity to meet with the nation’s electric cooperatives,” Amparo, an alumnus of NRECA’s Youth Tour, had responded. “As someone who grew up on co-op lines, I value the service they provide and commend them on their focus of getting the lights back on quickly after a disaster.”

The episode reveals something important about NRECA’s Legislative Conference and the value of enlisting a member services manager like Carson for the event, says Martha Duggan, the association’s senior director for regulatory affairs, who arranged the FEMA meeting.

A recent ice storm damaged nearly 8,000 North Plains Electric Cooperative poles. (Photo courtesy North Plains Electric)
A recent ice storm damaged nearly 8,000 North Plains Electric Cooperative poles. (Photo courtesy North Plains Electric)

“From my perspective, anyone from a co-op adds incredibly to meetings with policymakers,” Duggan says. “They bring the reality, the voice of boots on the ground.”

Carson, who now sits on the NRECA FEMA Policy Task Force that Duggan coordinates, agrees: “Member service … we’re the contact for so many fronts for the co-op, and a lot of times we have the communication skills and the government relations skills to help.”

He says those skills came in handy at the FEMA meeting with Amparo.

“Basically, I think it illustrated a situation that he already knew about,” Carson says. “The amount of money they’re spending is really under a microscope, and I get that. But it’s kind of a Catch-22. We’re trying to supply infrastructure and do it at an affordable price. It’s both for quality of life and economic development. And then, when we get hit with a catastrophe that we don’t have any control over, basically our members are at risk. Our whole co-op is at risk. Then it comes down to what’s economically viable, what can you count on from the government. And those are the kinds of discussions we need to continue. We need to educate FEMA about what we can and can’t do.”

More bad news lies ahead for small co-ops in big states, he warns.

“The next census, the state population of Texas is going to go up, so that’s going to raise the assistance threshold. And there’s a rulemaking at FEMA right now to raise that threshold anyway.”

NRECA’s FEMA Policy Task Force will be busy. Its nearly 50 members from 40 co-ops and statewides meet mostly by conference call. And Carson plans to be on the line.

He’ll fit those calls in between the press releases he writes, the service club presentations he makes, and the economic development meetings he attends.

“And I’ll certainly be involved in government relations locally, or when we have our congressman or state legislators come for a town meeting,” Carson says. “I go to all those. I make sure they know who I am, so I can call when we need something.”

He says his FEMA work has broadened his career in unexpected ways, and he expects he’ll probably be back for the 2018 Legislative Conference.

“If you’d have asked me a year ago if I was going to be in a big discussion about FEMA and disaster recovery, I would have said I’d never be involved in that,” Carson says. “That’s one of the things about member service and about co-ops in general. It’s never boring.”

Know someone RE Magazine could profile for our “Front Lines” column? We’re looking for co-op operations and member services staffers, from meter readers to lineworkers to engineers, who make things work at electric co-ops nationwide. Contact us at remag@nreca.coop, or you can reach writer John Vanvig directly at johnlvanvig@yahoo.com or 360-624-4595.

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