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DOWNS - Larry Young won't soon forget people rummaging through boxes at Kmart looking for something to wear.

The Corn Belt Electric Energy Corp. construction and maintenance manager also has an image etched into his mind of a girl anxiously looking into the face of a lineman as she asks if he's going to turn on the lights.

Another vivid scene includes a sharpshooter looking for lurking alligators over the shoulders of busy linemen.

Hurricane Katrina recovery not only taught Young new lessons, but also spurred Corn Belt officials to review how they would respond to a catastrophic disaster. Electric cooperative officials have just launched a massive review and update of a 25-year disaster plan they hope to complete by fall.

"We've always had plans for major outages in which it would take three or four days to restore power. This plan will go two steps further. We are looking at how we will respond to something that probably won't happen, such as a major ice storm. And we want to be able to respond if our facility would be destroyed," said Jeff Reeves, Corn Belt chief executive officer.

A committee comprised of three employees " Barb Casper, Greg Collins and Ron Stack " will formulate the plan. The trio is reviewing some existing plans from other electrical cooperatives as well as lessons learned by their Mississippi cohorts, Coast Electric Power Association.

Corn Belt answered a plea last year from Coast Electric to send supplies and linemen. Crews spent two-week stints in huge tents, which each housed 3,000 workers. Two truck-trailer combinations contained shower and bathroom facilities while another similar set-up supported a laundry where 2,500 pounds of dirty clothes got washed daily.

Hurricane Katrina left all 70,000 customers of Coast Electric powerless on Aug. 29. Nearly half of the co-op's 230 employees lost everything, yet they all reported the following day to assess damage and begin repairs.

'Planning is evolutionary'

Coast Electric officials initially believed it would take six to eight weeks to restore power. With help from 10,000 visiting linemen from 22 states, power was restored in three weeks to all members who could still receive power.

Young and other Corn Belt employees can barely grasp those numbers. Young remains amazed at the quick response by Coast Electric to serve 9,000 meals daily as well as secure and install 30,000 power poles and 10,000 transformers.

That's why Corn Belt employees are looking at a worst case scenario for their disaster plan. If the Downs headquarters burned, where would employees meet to discuss options? Where could they secure trucks and telecommunications equipment?

Several existing electrical cooperative disaster plans focus on assessing vulnerability to tornadoes, fire, floods and even earthquakes as well as losing suppliers. The plans center on analyzing how long it might take to restore key business functions, establishing an emergency response team and their responsibilities, and developing a contact list of emergency providers, employees and major suppliers.

"You've got to make sure you have access to materials so you can repair damage. And you've got to know your suppliers will take care of you," said Reeves.

Matt Patterson knows the drill all too well. He's a staff assistant in the catastrophic services division at State Farm Insurance Cos. For eight years, he worked the front lines as a catastrophic claims adjuster.

"You've got to have flexibility to respond to disasters. We keep learning from them. Just when you think you've got it down, something new happens. Disaster planning is evolutionary," said Patterson.

Overcoming obstacles

Being in the catastrophe business, State Farm maintains two 53-foot semi-trailers with sides capable of expanding into mobile offices. The catastrophe fleet also includes response vehicles with satellite connections that can be functional in a few hours. Fully powered estimator vans equipped with wireless Internet connections also come to the rescue.

State Farm's catastrophe team usually includes about 1,200 field personnel ready to respond on a moment's notice. It also involves 1,425 independent adjusters and 120 catastrophe claims personnel stationed in Jacksonville, Fla.

Patterson said responders always face logistical problems, such as flooding or finding hotel accommodations. Hurricane Katrina gave new meaning to the word challenge, he noted.

"We did something we've never done before. We set up trailers and built two housing villages for adjusters. It was a three-hour drive one-way to get to the damage, and there were no hotels," said Patterson, noting State Farm hopes to sell the trailers to recoup its investment.

"Last year, we also used 6,000 people to respond to hurricane damage. We did that by pulling people from our zone offices and hiring more independent adjusters. Disasters in 2004 helped us. It gave us more capacity last year because we had more trained independent adjusters available."

State Farm claims adjusters also learned last year to rely on satellite images of homes in severely damaged areas. Photographs helped adjusters respond more quickly to claims in some areas which remain inaccessible. Patterson said adjusters may rely even more on satellite images in future disasters.

"We had 1.5 million claims from disasters last year. About 650,000 came from the three hurricanes," said Patterson. "The key is getting the right resources at the right time, location and cost."


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