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Public Works progresses with 2023 storm repairs, searches for more funding 

San Luis Obispo County has made a significant dent in the volume of roads that needed repairs after the historic winter storms in early 2023.

The Public Works Department's third biannual storm update revealed a final count of 879 damaged or debris-laden sites around the county. It's a sharp jump from the initial estimate of 595 impacted areas in SLO County, which the department identified in the first update in May 2023.

click to enlarge LONG FIX SLO County is still fixing damaged road sites after the 2023 winter storms, with 166 of 879 locations expected to be repaired into 2027. - FILE COURTESY PHOTO BY MIA SUPPLE
  • File Courtesy Photo By Mia Supple
  • LONG FIX SLO County is still fixing damaged road sites after the 2023 winter storms, with 166 of 879 locations expected to be repaired into 2027.

"The storm work is expected to continue into 2027 even with the majority of the sites being repaired," supervising engineer Garret McElveny told the SLO County Board of Supervisors on May 14. "Staff is not projecting any additional immediate cash flow needs."

Of the 879 identified damaged sites, 166 locations still need fixes. The increased tally also saw higher estimated gross costs. Repairing all of the damaged roads would cost $55 million, compared to the $45 million estimate found in the previous storm update in November 2023. Public Works continues to seek funding approval from federal and state representatives for the $25 million it's already spent.

Despite the higher cost, the county's net cost isn't set to increase drastically because of reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Federal Highway Administration.

Public Works pursued FEMA reimbursements through three categories. It's already completed repairing all 385 sites that fall under debris removal, which cost a little more than $6 million. Fixing all 187 sites under FEMA's emergency opening and protective measures category cost $4.8 million. Public Works noted that repairing the 256 sites under the permanent road and bridge repairs category would cost $26.3 million. It's rebuilt 96 of them so far, which cost more than $9 million. Public Works also rehabilitated 45 of 51 emergency road openings and permanent repairs identified for Highway Administration reimbursement. Repairing all of them would cost $17 million.

But FEMA's claims process is slow and circuitous, according to the county staff report. As of May 1, SLO County received reimbursements totaling $37,000.

"California, for this particular event, just incurred so much damage that there's so many claims just in our district that FEMA encapsulates with us," McElveny told New Times on May 15. "There might be over 1,500 in the state at least. Just imagine if five of these are going through every week, they only have a certain amount of people that can process them."

The county also anticipates a conservative amount of future reimbursement from FEMA, setting the maximum at 75 percent with an added 18 percent of reimbursements from the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services. Public Works expects the reimbursements for repair work authorized by the Highway Administration to cover almost the entire cost. The funding plan accounts for the minimum total net reimbursement from all funding sources to cover at least 66 percent of the total expenses.

"Public Works' experience has been that FEMA finds a significant portion of costs ineligible for reimbursement, reducing the actual percentage of costs recovered," the staff report said.

The county hopes to foot the total $55 million repair bill through general reserve and COVID-19 designation funds; American Rescue Plan Act money, road maintenance funds; approved internal loans; grant funding for the Cecchetti Road Crossing project; and the Highway Administration and FEMA reimbursements for Cecchetti Road Crossing, Chimney Rock Road bridge repair, and Creston Road bridge repair projects.

In a 4-0 vote, with 3rd District Supervisor Dawn Ortiz-Legg absent, the Board of Supervisors bolstered Public Works' repair budget by approving $12.4 million in interim loans. That money will go toward road maintenance and will cover the current cost for storm repairs in combination with roads funds.

The county forecasts storm repair costs of $9.5 million for fiscal year 2023-2024. The balance of the $12.4 million interim loan will roll over to the next fiscal year for more storm repairs.

"There are two main sites that are main priorities: Chimney Rock Road at Franklin Creek and Cecchetti Road at Arroyo Grande Creek," McElveny said. "We are working every day ... and we have a team of five people dedicated to all the repairs." Δ

Note: This article was updated to include a photo and links.

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