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Are you ready for a storm?

February is the peak of the ice storm season in our state. Is your city prepared for an ice storm, hurricane or other severe weather event?

Major ice storms and severe weather events occur infrequently in South Carolina, but when they do, municipalities face the challenge of delivering emergency services, determining how to clear roads, disposing massive volumes of debris and figuring out how to pay for the added costs.

In February 2014, the last significant winter weather event to strike the state, 22 counties were declared federal disaster areas. The storm generated more than a million cubic yards of debris statewide. At its peak, 364,000 people were without power.

Prior preparation is the key to recovering storm-related emergency service costs and accelerating the recovery process. This is particularly true when storm damage is significant and widespread enough to result in a presidential disaster declaration, which triggers the availability of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance Grant Program. Advance planning should include having a debris removal plan in place and a basic understanding of how the Public Assistance Program operates.

Under the PA program, affected state and local governments can apply for federal grants to pay 75 percent of approved costs for emergency services resulting from a storm, and the repair or replacement of damaged public utilities, facilities and infrastructure. Debris removal costs incurred during the first 30 days after a disaster are eligible to be reimbursed at 85 percent. The amount decreases to 80 percent of costs incurred up to 60 days after the event, and 75 percent thereafter.

To be reimbursed for labor, equipment and materials, the municipality must accurately document the hours worked and equipment used to complete the work. Labor costs for eligible emergency storm-related work, for both straight-time and overtime, is reimbursed based on the employee’s hourly rate.

FEMA uses its hourly rate schedule to reimburse for equipment. The rates are designed to cover costs for the operation, depreciation, maintenance and fuel for equipment. For additional details, review FEMA Public Assistance Tools and Resources.

If a municipality chooses not to tackle the debris removal in-house, local officials can contract with a private company using a FEMA-compliant contract. The municipality is responsible for ensuring the work performed and billed is eligible for assistance. The state Emergency Management Division and/or the county emergency manager can help ensure the contracts comply with FEMA regulations.

Another option for cities is to participate in an existing debris removal contract issued by the county or the SC Department of Transportation. This approach relieves the municipality of direct contract oversight. It also eliminates the need to tie up city funds while waiting for FEMA or state reimbursement.

SCDOT has preapproved contracts for debris removal on public roads. During both the 2014 ice storm and October flood recovery, using SCDOT contactors proved to be an effective way to remove debris.

The best ways to accelerate recovery and reduce a municipality’s exposure to unreimbursed storm-related costs are to have a plan already in place and understand FEMA’s reimbursement process before a storm strikes.