By Jeannine Anderson, News Editor
What a difference a small wobble from Hurricane Irma made, the night after it made landfall.
All day, the massive storm had been expected to stay along Florida’s west coast, and head straight for Tampa. But at the last minute, that evening, Irma changed its track just a little, veering toward the east, plowing through Polk County with gusts of 115 miles per hour and hitting the public power towns of Fort Meade, Lakeland and Bartow. Orlando, Kissimmee and Jacksonville — three more public power communities — also were hit hard.
“This will probably be the largest utility restoration and rebuild project in the history of the United States,” said Roseann Harrington, vice president of marketing at the Orlando Utilities Commission, in a video posted Sept. 12 by the Orlando Sentinel. “So we ask for everybody’s patience.”
The city of Lakeland reported gusts of nearly 110 mph, according to the local newspaper, The Ledger. Lakeland Electric reported that 78,430 customers had gone dark as a result of 1,897 outages on the electric system that would have to be repaired, the newspaper said. As a first priority, Lakeland was bringing in chainsaw crews to clear downed trees from the roads. City Manager Tony Delgado said that more than 200 trees had fallen in Lakeland.
Officials were focused on restoring power at Polk County's facilities, said a report in the Lakeland Patch. County sheriff’s deputies were driving all roads to assess which roads were impassible, the newspaper reported Monday. Schools in Polk County will be closed there until Sept. 18, officials said.
Hundreds rescued from Jacksonville floods
On Tuesday, flooding and power outages continued to be a major problem in the public power city of Jacksonville — Florida’s largest metropolis — after a surge led to record levels of the St. Johns River on Monday. Trees were a big problem there, too.
“We have trees down in roads all over our city,” Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry tweeted on Tuesday afternoon. “Cut & toss crews are working in full force.”
Curry said that more than 350 people have had to be rescued from flooded homes. Stranded residents were being asked to put out a white cloth so that rescuers would know where to go to find them.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Curry said that Irma struck with a storm surge that would be expected from a Category 3 hurricane, even though its winds were at only tropical storm levels by the time it reached northeast Florida.
Meanwhile, convoys of utility trucks from utilities across the country — from the public power, investor-owned, and rural cooperative sectors — continued to make their way to the places in need of help. Many crews of lineworkers and tree workers were already in place and hard at work.
In a mutual aid conference call with American Public Power Association officials on Tuesday morning, Sept. 12, Amy Zubaly, executive director of the Florida Municipal Electric Association, said that public power utilities in Florida were grateful for the help.
“Thank you all for all the assistance on crews,” she said. “Our members are so appreciative.”
Number of outages was slowly diminishing
On Monday, 6.5 million electricity customers in Florida had no power, said Zubaly, and that number was down to 5.5 million as of Tuesday morning.
“Still a lot, but good progress,” she said. The 5.5 million included 536,000 customers of public power utilities.
The public power towns of Tallahassee — where FMEA has its headquarters — and Kissimmee were looking like they might be able to have virtually all service restored by the end of the day on Tuesday, she said, and if that was the case, crews from those utilities would be able to go to areas that had more extensive damage.
Polk County, in particular, was among the areas that really felt the wrath of Irma, Zubaly said.
In the Florida Keys, including the public power town of Key West, mutual aid crews had not yet been able to help because bridges to the Keys remained out, she said. Water service, as well as electric service, was out in the Keys, and communications networks were not working either.
“Hopefully, today will be a little better than yesterday,” she said.
For some communities in the beleaguered state, electricity could not be restored yet because major transmission lines were down.
Mike Hyland, APPA’s senior vice president of engineering services, who led the Tuesday morning public power mutual aid call, noted the need for tree-trimming crews to deal with all of the fallen trees and broken branches left behind by Irma.
“This could be more of a vegetation problem than a bucket truck, digger-derrick truck, problem,” at least for the immediate future, he said.
Mutual aid calls become a morning ritual
The mutual aid conference call on Sept 12, a call that has become a regular 9:30 a.m. event in recent weeks (since before Hurricane Harvey hit Texas), included public power officials from Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, and Texas.
As of Tuesday morning, a public power mutual aid spreadsheet that uses Google Docs listed close to 1,000 mutual aid resources — crews that either are in the areas hit by the hurricane, are en route to Florida, or were expecting to leave soon.
The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that, according to estimates from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Hurricane Irma destroyed 25 percent of homes in the Florida Keys.
Progress in Orlando, Kissimmee
The city of Orlando reported that as of 8:30 p.m. on Monday evening, it had restored power to approximately 24 percent of customers, reducing the total number out from its peak of 145,000 down to 108,000.
“Hundreds of crews spent the entire day assessing damage, removing trees and restoring power,” the Orlando Utilities Commission said in a Sept. 11 news release.
“Our team of assessors identified significant damage to OUC equipment including broken and leaning poles, blown transformers, and downed wires,” the public power utility said. Transmission lines were repaired and power was restored to critical facilities including water plants, wastewater, lift stations, hospitals, emergency shelters, police, and fire services.
The number of these facilities impacted “is larger than what we experienced with Hurricane Charley,” OUC said. “We thank everyone for their patience as we work as safely and quickly as possible.”
Late Tuesday afternoon, OUC said it currently estimates that it will have its entire service territory restored by 10 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 15. "Please keep in mind that the last 2 to 3 percent of our customers will be the most difficult to restore," the utility said. "Individual customer estimated times of restoration will be available Wednesday morning, Sept. 13, via the outage map at ouc.com."
In Kissimmee, Kissimmee Utility Authority crews worked through the day and evening on Monday to restore power to customers affected by Hurricane Irma, KUA reported Monday. At the peak of the storm on Monday morning, 38,000 customers — or 53 percent of the utility’s 72,000 customers — were without electricity, said spokesman Chris Gent. By 8 p.m. on Monday, crews had restored service to 27,128, or 71 percent of the customers impacted by the storm. About 10,872 customers remained without power.
Through a mutual aid agreement, KUA said it was bringing in lineworkers and tree trimmers from Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Texas to assist with power restoration. Some of the crews arrived in advance of the storm and the remaining workers were to begin work on Tuesday.
Hurricane Irma made landfall on Sunday morning, Sept. 10, as a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 130 miles per hour. By Monday, although the extent of the damage was still being assessed, it was already clear that, true to the predictions, this large, powerful — and it seemed, capricious — storm had caused widespread destruction on Florida’s west coast, its center, and its east coast as well.
On Tuesday, the New York Times posted satellite footage of Irma and two other hurricanes making their swirling paths through the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.
FERC, NERC issue joint statement
Meanwhile, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Neil Chatterjee and North American Electric Reliability Corporation President and CEO Gerry Cauley on Sept. 12 issued a joint statement on electricity industry assistance related to Hurricane Irma recovery.
“We appreciate and encourage the ongoing inter-utility cooperation among utilities, both public and private, in response to Hurricane Irma, which devastated Florida and Georgia, neighboring states, Puerto Rico and U.S. territories in the Caribbean,” Chatterjee and Cauley said, noting that the storm comes on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, “which already put the electricity industry to the test.”
Chatterjee and Cauley said that the Hurricane Irma response likely will be among the largest industry restoration efforts in U.S. history.
Utility industry vegetation and line crews have traveled to the region in large numbers from across the country and Canada, they noted.
“Nevertheless, affected utilities in the southeastern United States report that, in many areas, they still urgently need vegetation management and line crews to expedite restoration and recovery of electricity to customers. We encourage cooperation of the industry in providing assistance to areas affected by Hurricane Irma,” Chatterjee and Cauley said in the statement.
They said that NERC vegetation management requirements under Reliability Standard FAC-003-4 – Vegetation Management provide flexibility in how utilities manage their programs and are not prescriptive with regard to specific milestones or dates.
The requirements generally contemplate the possibility of modifications to a utility’s annual work plan to respond to conditions such as identified unanticipated high priority work and crew or contractor availability due in part to mutual assistance agreements for helping after events such as hurricanes, the statement noted.
“Using our regulatory discretion, we will consider the actions of entities assisting others from the impacts of Hurricane Irma to be positive and to not negatively impact compliance considerations with respect to Reliability Standard FAC-003-4 Vegetation Management,” Chatterjee and Cauley said.
Mutual assistance and public-private cooperation “are hallmarks of the electric industry, and we appreciate the efforts underway to assist the areas affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma,” they went on to say in the statement.
“We particularly want to express our gratitude to the thousands of crews who have traveled, in many cases over long distances, to help restore electric service to customers in those areas,” Chatterjee and Cauley said.