Family is powerless in the face of regulations

habdullah@mcclatchydc.comFebruary 7, 2009 

Sybol Close has a face creased with worry lines and the voice of a woman used to conversing with the heavens during tough times.

So as ice, snow and frozen branches pummeled her family's home in Greenville in Western Kentucky, she knew that she, her eight grandchildren and other loved ones would be safe.

Now that the storm has passed, the Close family, like so many financially strapped Kentucky families whose lives were upended by the massive ice storm, finds itself in a tangle of bureaucratic red tape.

Utility companies can't restore power until families like hers make costly upgrades to their homes' electrical systems.

"This house only has an 80-amp fuse box. It was built back in the 1940s so it's not up to code," said Close, who has spent almost two weeks with her family at a Red Cross Shelter at First Baptist Church in Greenville. "The meter that's out there is the old meter, so until a new meter gets put in and a breaker box instead of a fuse box, they won't hook power up to it."

"That costs money, that's $5,000, and that's not money we have."

At its peak, the ice storm knocked out power to more than 760,000 customers in Kentucky. The storm also has been blamed for 29 deaths in the state.

Although the number without power has been reduced substantially by an army of utility workers, recovery is proving tough for some in the hardest-hit areas.

Close's situation is "not unique at all," said Waymon Jones, a volunteer with the Red Cross at the shelter in Greenville.

"It's something we ran into down South during Hurricane Katrina and during the tornado last year. All power companies require you to have 100-amp services with breaker boxes. If you don't have them you got to pay electricians. There are people right and left having that done."

Ordinarily, churches and social service organizations would help offset those types of costs. In Greenville, disaster relief groups raised roughly $15,000 over the past two years to do just that.

"But now that this thing has hit, people aren't coming through with the funds because they've been hit themselves," Jones said. "So people are looking to go elsewhere."

State officials are exploring possible solutions and are checking to see whether volunteer agencies might be able to assist people in the Close family's position, said FEMA spokeswoman Terry Ingram.

Officials are also asking those with functioning electrical systems to turn off their fuse boxes so the region doesn't experience power surges that could spark fires as utility company crews turn on the power. In Muhlenberg County, there were several house fires Friday as power was restored, FEMA officials said.

President Barack Obama on Thursday declared a major disaster in Kentucky in the aftermath of the ice storm. That declaration could help the state recoup at least 75 percent of the more than $61 million spent so far in clean-up and rescue efforts.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is reviewing Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear's request to reimburse the cash-strapped state 100 percent of the cost of rescue efforts during the first seven days after the storm — including an appeal to the federal government to pay for the salaries of National Guard troops who spent hours delivering meals and hacking through ice and fallen trees to free trapped residents.

At this point, the state has not asked for financial aid for individuals, FEMA said Friday. There is no specific FEMA program that would directly address electricity issues for individuals.

On Wednesday the acting administrator of FEMA, Nancy Ward, toured areas of Kentucky that had been ravaged by the storm. Next week, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is expected to visit the state to observe the federal response to the ice storm, which also hit several other states.

In the meantime, people like Close are starting to wonder how to begin life anew.

That will not be an easy feat for the matriarch of a 13-member clan.

Before the storm, she and her daughters were just getting by. Close, who for years worked at Wal-Mart, stayed home to mind the youngest children as her daughters headed off to jobs at Lowe's and Applebee's.

The children kept their book bags out on the porch so as to not take up too much room in the small home on Trowbridge Street, just four blocks from the shelter. The book bags are still there, as are the children's school clothes — things they'll need when they return to class Monday at Greenville Elementary School.

Heavy rains brought on leaks in the back rooms. The family often huddled around electric and kerosene heaters to keep warm.

From her position on the running track of the fellowship center at First Baptist Church in Greenville, Close looked down toward the Red Cross shelter, which has emptied out as many who sought shelter got back on their feet.

Her eyes were bloodshot and full of tears as she pondered where her family will eventually land. Their home, she's decided, is uninhabitable. Volunteers in the shelter are helping the family look for a new place to live, she said.

She headed back to the shelter, and the children clung to her spouting tales of the day as fast as they could. The children recently contracted a food-related virus, and they have been quarantined from the rest of the families at the shelter.

But the virus is just a minor chapter in the family's saga.

"The toughest part was standing outside watching all this happen," Close said. "It's like standing there and watching your world disappear. That was the toughest part.

"If all of our stuff stays there it's God's will. If it gets stolen that's God's will, too. But we start over as a family."

Freelance photographer Jonathan Palmer contributed to this report.

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