FEMA pay spurs tree-trimming operation in Morgan City
By JAMES A. ROBICHAUX
The Morgan City utility department continues its perpetual tree trimming near electrical wires, but with a state of emergency after Hurricane Isaac, it can get reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Bill Cefalu, utilities director.
The department gets calls every day with tree branches stuck on wires, he said.
“I’m cutting everything where someone called in and saw something sparking. If it never got done before, it’s because we didn’t have enough crews, and we don’t have enough crews because we didn’t have any money to pay for them,” Cefalu said.
“Now that we have a hurricane, we can get some federal assistance. Now, we’re cutting everything that’s even close,” he said.
“Everything was working fine before the storm,” he said about tree-trimming before the storm. “How prepared do you want to be? You’d have to cut down every tree that’s higher than a power line or under a power line. That would be the only way, but you can’t just go around chopping up people’s trees,” he said.
Lorrie Braus, chief administrative officer, agreed.
“We tell people to not plant trees in the city’s right of way. Most of the trees that we have to trim are those that private citizens plant on city right of way,” she said.
“We can go in a whack down everyone’s private tree in the public right of way, but I can promise you that there would be plenty of complaints if that happened,” Braus said.
Cefalu, who added that “some people don’t want you touching their trees,” said that the city has one crew that it can dedicate to tree trimming and that it takes a year to make the rounds of cutting trees away from all of the wires in the city.
“So, we go looking for burned branches first. Then, if we have nothing to do, we cut things that are close to the wires,” he said.
Braus said there is no budget for the tree trimming that is done by the 11-person electrical department. The department’s budget is $1,300,390, about half of which is for payroll. Another $280,000 is for depreciation, Braus said.
Work that will be reimbursed by FEMA cannot begin until after the emergency declaration is declared, she said.
Cefalu described a situation near the city’s petting zoo where an electrical line was knocked out of service despite not having a tree near it.
“A line was running in a field with no trees anywhere within a hundred yards, and the circuit was knocked out due to a wind-blown branch,” he said.
Cefalu said that his workers would have cut more tree branches if the department had more money.
“I don’t get half of what I ask for in the budget. All I can do is all I can do,” he said. “Every utility company would love people cutting trees every day. Sales taxes are down. Revenue is down.”
Cefalu also spoke of large cities like Washington, D.C., that have electrical lines below the ground.
“They don’t have a water table that is a foot-and-a-half below ground,” he said. “Plus, it’s 10 times more expensive to go underground than it is to go overhead.”
Both Cefalu and Braus said that the city fared well for Isaac, especially considering how bad it could have been and how bad other nearby areas are suffering.
“Actually, I think that we fared ridiculously well,” Braus said.
“Hindsight is always 20/20. We have a great group of department heads, and we have an intelligent group of councilmen who put this budget together with foresight, and you can’t think of everything.”