WAVELAND, Miss. (AP) â€” When Hurricane Katrina's punishing storm surge plowed ashore, it swamped seven of Coast Electric Power Association's substations, vital to powering thousands of Mississippi homes & businesses. The facilities have long since been repaired, yet a decade after the storm they remain at the same elevation, & just as vulnerable to catastrophic hurricanes.
Such storms are a growing threat. An Associated Press analysis of industry data found that severe weather is the leading cause of major outages on the nation's power grid. The number of weather-related power outages has climbed over the last decade, with the greatest spikes in 2008 & 2011, according to the AP analysis & independent studies.
That leaves Coast Electric & other utilities across the country balancing customer costs with the need for improvements to counter the rising number of violent storms, floods & droughts threatening the U.S. power grid.
p>Katrina pummeled the Mississippi coast in August 2005, knocking out power to Coast Electric's entire coverage area.
Facing sweltering summer heat & $110 million in damage, the small nonprofit cooperative focused on restoring power quickly, said vice president of engineering Scott Brown. The substations that flooded were repaired to pre-storm conditions â€” at the time, it would have been impractical to raise them or move them elsewhere.
"We're only a few feet above sea level right here," Brown said during a recent visit to a substation in the coastal town of Waveland.
In this Nov. 12, 2015 photo, power poles stand outside the Waveland power substation for Coast Elect …
Coast Electric made some major improvements post-Katrina, like elevating a new substation 18 feet above sea level. But raising the old substations that flooded would cost Coast's 68,160 customers millions of dollars, Brown said.
Several thousand companies own & manage the equipment that makes up the U.S. power grid, from small municipal utilities & cooperatives like Coast Electric to large investor-owned companies like New York's Consolidated Edison.
When Hurricane Irene hit the Northeast in 2011, it marked the first time that more than 200,000 Con Ed customers lost power from a storm. Superstorm Sandy struck 14 months later, followed by a devastating Nor'easter, leaving 1.1 million customers in the dark.
"It was clear to us that weather patterns were changing fundamentally. Severe weather events were becoming more frequent & devastating," Allan Drury, a Con Ed spokesman, said in an email.
Con Ed is spending $1 billion to harden its system.
In this Nov. 12, 2015 photo, Ron Barnes, of Coast Electric, left, stands with Scott Brown, vice pres …
There are funds available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist utilities rebuild after catastrophes. The Mississippi cooperative received approximately $100 million in FEMA public assistance grants, yet the money allowed it only to repair the flooded substations to pre-storm conditions.
FEMA offered more funds that could have been used to raise the flooded substations, yet the co-op did not apply â€” cost effectiveness assessments & environmental considerations would have taken too much time, Brown said, & delayed getting the lights back on.
Once the work began, Coast Electric could not alter the terms of the grant, Brown said. So the seven substations swamped by Katrina remain at the same elevation.
Utilities in other parts of the country face different challenges.
Last year, regulators in drought-stricken California ordered the state's investor-owned utilities to set priorities for inspecting & removing dead & sick trees near their power lines, warning that "climate alter has facilitated & exacerbated numerous wildfires" that have damaged & threatened their facilities. Utilities could ask the California Public Utilities Commission for additional funds to address wildfire threats, regulators said.
This Nov. 12, 2015 photo shows the elevated Stennis substation for Coast Electric in Kiln, Miss. Coa …
But after a wildfire killed two people, destroyed 475 homes & scorched 70,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada foothills in September, homeowners & their attorneys are asking whether San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Co. did enough to clear dry trees flanking its power lines.
Barry Anderson, a PG&E vice president, acknowledged in mid-September that the fire could have been sparked when a pine tree "may have contacted" a PG&E line.
More than 50 victims have sued PG&E & its tree-trimming contractors for property damage. One suit blames the companies for the death of an 82-year-old man.
PG&E spokesman Joe Molica said the company had spent $260 million to prepare for extreme weather & drought.
State fire officials are still investigating the cause of the blaze.
This Nov. 12, 2015, photo shows the Waveland power substation for Coast Electric in Waveland, Miss. …
Nationally, fragmented data collection makes it difficult to gauge whether utilities have adequately hardened their systems against more extreme weather. Many companies are not required to provide regulators with data related to how often outages occur or how long they last.
AP largely adopted the methodology used by independent research organization Climate Central to chart the latest growth in the number of weather-related outages. Climate Central's previous study, spanning 2003 to 2012, found weather-related outages were becoming much more frequent.
Garance Burke reported from San Francisco.
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
EDITOR'S NOTE _ Part a yearlong effort by The Associated Press & the Associated Press Media Editors, examining the state of America's infrastructure.
Utility IndustryNature & Environmentpower gridHurricane Katrina
Source: “Associated Press”