Is South Florida more prepared than it was 12 years ago with Wilma?

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The memories of the stifled recovery from Florida’s 2004-05 spate of hurricanes still haunt: gas stations with fuel but no power to pump it, high rises with people but no working elevators and neighborhoods that scrambled to recover for weeks without electricity.

Florida’s utility companies say they have learned from the eight hurricanes more than a decade ago and if Irma makes landfall, recovery will be different.

High rises are now required to have at least one elevator operate on generator power. Gas stations and convenience stores, which fended off legislation that would have required them to buy generators, must now have access to a back-up power supply if they have fuel but no electricity.

And Florida’s utility companies, which have employed new technology and invested billions in hardening since Wilma slammed South Florida in 2005, say they are more prepared than ever for a monster storm.

“We learn from every storm and we take these lessons learned to see how we can make improvements because the key is getting the lights back on,” said Bill Orlove, FPL spokesperson.

After Hurricane Sandy slammed New Jersey in 2012, FPL took a lesson from the flooding and installed 223 flood monitors in substations susceptible to flooding. The company plans to remove equipment or pre-emptively shut down power rather than risk having the equipment damaged, Orlove said, making it easier to restore power when the water subsides.

During Hurricane Matthew last year, FPL employed drones to survey damage in areas crews couldn’t reach. The drones transmitted real time information to mobile crews to help them more quickly identify the areas with downed poles so they could begin the repairs.

And this year the company has lined up contracts to use mobile campers or “sleeper units” equipped with toilets, showers and 18 beds each to accommodate repair crews when hotels are not available.

“FPL’s customer service ratings were dismal after Wilma. Now they’re the go-to utility for companies from other states for information on how to handle a disaster,” said Craig Fugate, director of FEMA from 2009 to 2017 and was Florida Emergency Management Director from 2001-09.

After Hurricane Wilma caused more than $20 billion in damage, led to weeks of electrical outages and long lines and angry drivers waiting for gas, lawmakers debated whether to require all gas stations to have emergency measures in place.

Protests from the convenience store industry convinced legislators not to require gas stations to buy generators, but they did order those that undergo major renovations and those located near interstates and along major evacuation routes to have wiring that makes it easy to switch to generator power to pump gasoline and to run other equipment.

Legislators also set aside $52.8 million for putting generators into special needs shelters and $15 million for expanding and retrofitting shelters for the general population.

Power outages caused byWilma also left some high-rise residents stuck on upper floors with no elevator to get down. The 2006 legislation also required the owners or operators of any building, including condominiums, that are at least 75 feet high to be able to run at least one elevator on generator power and be able to power the fire alarm system.

Back-up generators intended to keep emergency elevators and power running are now standard in many high rises today, but many buildings are perched on the oceanfront and other challenges loom. Many generators are located on lower floors, which are vulnerable to storm surge and flooding.

Miami Dade County has compiled a list of gas stations and businesses that have generator power here. Broward County has a similar list here.

But the greatest amount of attention went to Florida’s electric utilities. The massive power outages after the 2004-05 storms prompted the Florida Public Service Commission to require utility companies to better plan and invest in storm-hardening infrastructure and report back to regulators annually with their progress.

As a result, the utilities formed a collaborative group to work together to decide how to make the system more resilient, prevent outages and, when outages occur make them shorter, said Ted Kury, director of energy studies at the University of Florida’s Public Utility Research Center, which advises utilities on storm preparation and hardening.

One of the first changes was to establish a set of standards and practices for better vegetation management to prevent damaging power lines, including better coordination with local governments about access to tree trimming, Kury said.

Another was the finding that while many people believe that burying power lines underground is an expensive but effective solution to avoiding wind damage, it often makes them more susceptible to flooding and storm surge.

“The biggest barrier to hardening the electricity grid is people’s willingness to pay,’’ he said. “There is always something more you can do to make your grid more resilient, but the PSC has to give them the OK to do it, and the public has to be willing to pay for it.”

FPL reports that since 2006 it has spent $3 billion to fortify its grid and, by the end of 2017, that effort includes burying more than 60 additional main power lines underground and “installing more than 4.9 million smart meters and 83,000 intelligent devices to help predict, reduce and prevent power outages, and restore power faster if outages occur.”

Duke reports that it has invested $2.4 billion in maintaining and strengthening the system, including replacing more than 802,000 wood power poles since 2006.

The company also has invested in new technologies called “self-healing” systems that “automatically detect, isolate and reroute power when a problem occurs,” said AnnMarie Varga, Duke spokesperson.

In 2016, a total of 164,000 outages were prevented and over 11 million customer minutes of interruption were saved with these systems, she said. And when it comes to recovering from the storm, the company approaches it from the top down — steering staff and crews from six states to allow the company to double its resources in one to two days, she said.

“Florida utilities are much better prepared for storms than they were in the 2004-05 years,” Kury said.

But even utilities are being cautious about over-promising. On Tuesday, FPL urged its customers “to prepare for potentially prolonged power outages.”

FPL CEO Eric Silagy said “there is a significant chance that Irma could impact or make landfall in FPL’s service area.

“FPL urges its customers to take the time now to prepare for potentially prolonged power outages. Additionally, given the nature of the approaching storm and expected vegetation-related impacts on FPL equipment, some customers may experience more than one outage throughout the duration of the storm.”

Fugate, the former FEMA director, also offers a warning.

“Even with the infrastructure investment, big windstorms knock out power,” he said. “And people have to understand if you get that much wind you are going to lose power.”


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