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The real disaster is Florida Power & Light

STEVE REID
Editor & Publisher
sreid@lbknews.com

I have grown to dislike Florida Power and Light.

Not because any single person has let me down or done anything wrong. My anger emanates from three main reasons: The impersonal nature of their response to Hurricane Irma; the fact that a Category-One storm at best wiped out the entire electrical grid of Sarasota and Manatee County, and the fact that they cannot in today’s day and age provide any detailed information is insulting.

 

Building integrity

Let’s start with the system in general.

We rely on FPL to provide a stable and reliable system to deliver electricity. We are not engineers nor experts. My bill is generally $600 per month and I take the service for granted.

But what I find hard to relate to is the fact that building codes require a 140 m.p.h. wind load capacity for roofs, windows, shutters and siding.

Homes must be elevated by law to prevent water from storm surges and make a home insurable.

Specific nailing and screw patterns are required in all manner and mode of construction by law to ensure buildings will not be ripped apart by a storm up to 140 m.p.h.

And the justification for these codes and government regulations is the experience of Hurricane Andrew and other storms where lessons were learned. They created the modern Florida Building Code. It is the New Testament of structural integrity.

 

Functional failure

But somehow FPL has evolved a tapestry of delivering electricity that has functionally failed Sarasota and Manatee Counties in the most alarming way — more than 75 percent of all customers lost power — the majority for days — from a storm that barely hit us as a Category-One hurricane.

And five days later tens and tens of thousands are without power.

I posit the real disaster from Hurricane Irma was not structural, or clearing roads of the debris or draining inundated homes — it simply was the cost of losing power. That was the main threat to our health, safety and welfare. That is where time, money, lives and patience have been lost.

 

Local government performed flawlessly

Hospitals, shelters, schools, traffic lights and an area that has a large elderly population have had to endure a strange dichotomy of outcomes.

On one hand, the City of Sarasota, the Town of Longboat Key and the Counties have performed an amazing job clearing roads, getting lift stations in order and restoring normalcy. They worked hard and made it look easy.

I saw City of Sarasota trucks everywhere after the storm on Monday clearing limbs and brush. They were also approachable, answering questions. Their main answer was a refrain — “We are waiting on FPL”

Waiting on FPL to allow cutting a tree out of road. Waiting on FPL to get a lift station up and running. Waiting on FPL so we might know when schools will reopen.

I saw the local businesses taking plywood off, sweeping and opening up as soon as Tuesday on St. Armands Circle.

I saw a school system ready to go back to work.

Yards were raked, mail was delivered, Fed Ex was making deliveries. The gas crises ended.

Everything was back to normal with the exception of one huge monolithic entity — FPL and its power grid.

The damage was minimal, but FPL and its electrical system failure turned a “we got lucky moment” into an economically costly series of ever-frustrating disasters.

 

Looking into the void

I, like every other person without power, kept returning to the impersonal FPL website only to be confronted with the simple one line statement declaring, ”We expect to have power restored to Southwest Florida by September 22.”  Then there is the caveat that in some instances it will take longer.

But of course, there is no human face to the company.

When I wanted to know if the tree that fell across my yard into the street could be removed, I saw a city truck removing brush on the roadside. He rushed over and called it in to the City. He remarked that they have to wait on FPL to see if it can be moved because of a pole in the brush.

Then the lift station on the end of the street was out — “We cannot even get ahold of FPL to get this station on-line,” I am told.

Then I keep going back to the website looking at the same electrical outage status page that never gets updated.

Then I drive by my house three times a day and at night I skulk in with my cell phone and shine it on the meter only to see the same blank nothingness.

 

A system of Toothpicks and Dental Floss

I started to believe the electrical grid was nothing more than toothpicks and dental floss haphazardly cobbled together. Even the tarp on my boat did not blow off and most residents had little to no damage. Yet still, we had a Barbuda meets Haiti level of damage to our power grid.

It brings to mind:

• Has FPL made the necessary investments to harden our system in line with the evolution of building codes?

• Are government regulations of the power company ensuring the delivery system is the most robust available? Could it be better?

• How much money was really spent in hiring contractors and what percentage is being spent on reliability and hardening the system vs. profits?

• Who is regulating FPL and are they doing an adequate job?

 

The high cost of camping out

I finally got a FPL Press representative on the phone who was very kind but kept telling me of the unprecedented magnitude of the affected area and of the size of FPL’s response.

I kept trying to question why a Category-One storm that had no relevant storm surge in our area and very little physical property damage took out the entire electrical grid.

He said lessons will be learned and he could send me a fact sheet of investments recently made.

I do not want to take away from the thousands of line workers who are working around the clock to get power on. They are working hard under tough conditions.

I am questioning the underlying integrity of FPL’s electrical delivery system. It has failed us. It went down and continues to be down for tens of thousands of folks.

The cost for families to camp out in hotels as their homes mold up is ridiculous. The fact that kids will have to return to school by law on Monday when many of their homes are not habitable because of no electricity is bizarre.

 

Hey, at least we are alive!

I also hate platitudes. Yes, it could have been worse. Yes, we are lucky we are not in a county or country further South. Yes, we are lucky we are not in Barbuda or starving in Haiti or hit by a monsoon on the Indian Subcontinent.

But telling someone that they are lucky they only broke their arm and not their spine is nice for the person saying it.

“You are lucky you have brain cancer and two days left; you could have been dead today,” is hardly the way to show off a magnanimous view of life with effectiveness.

 

It is not all broken…

Personally, I rented a nice home in Palm Aire to weather the hurricane with my family. I thought I was protecting us from winds and a storm surge. It turns out the real damage in my life came from the power company I assumed was capable of handling winds better than the $20 Harbor Freight tarp on my boat.

But there is good news — something at FPL is not broken.

I can guarantee the electricity powering their billing system never went down.

Even with the power out at your home, your bill will keep flying at you like a Category 5 termite ready to bore a hole in your budget.

 

 

 

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Longboat Key News

3 Responses for “The real disaster is Florida Power & Light”

  1. Doug Riemer says:

    Of course you won’t publish this, Steve. You’ve lived too long in that insular community of people whose wealth is only exceeded by their selfishness. But that doesn’t fix the issue that barrier islands are spits of sand that should never have been developed so fully with such elaborate structures. Remember, the old Whitney Beach cottages were simply moved back from the beach when eroded by storms. Some still survive having been moved to The Village. Well, when the big one hits, you can blame someone else for your losses — its the Longboat Way!

    “Only.” on rarefied LBK would the owner of the community newspaper be doing so well that he can state, “My bill is generally $600 per month and I take the service for granted.” It’s certainly nice to be so well off you can spend in electricity what many pay in rent, and even better to refuse to be responsible for the risks of living on a barrier island — blaming someone else for your problems. Remember, they didn’t name the pass to Lido “New Pass” because it was created in ancient times.
    It would have been a little less selfish and more realistic to turn up your a/c thermostat a couple of degrees and use the savings to buy a generator.”

  2. Doug Riemer says:

    Only.” on rarefied LBK would the owner of the community newspaper be doing so well that he can state, “My bill is generally $600 per month and I take the service for granted.” It’s certainly nice to be so well off you can spend in electricity what many pay in rent, and even better to refuse to be responsible for the risks of living on a barrier island — blaming someone else for your problems. Remember, they didn’t name the pass to Lido “New Pass” because it was created in ancient times.
    It would have been a little less selfish and more realistic to turn up your a/c thermostat a couple of degrees and use the savings to buy a generator.

  3. Steve Keller says:

    While some of your observations are justified and although there is certainly room for improvement in FPL’s local Irma performance, I don’t think the level of general criticism you have levied is justified. Many areas of LBK had power restored in 24hrs and many more in 48hrs. Buildings/homes along GOM Dr. fared the best because of the absence of tall tree interference with power lines. Areas with high density tree growth fared the worst in terms of power infrastructure damage so it’s logical they would be without power longer- especially the north end of the Key. Outage repairs were further impacted by damage to feeder lines coming from the mainland (which all do) and although this level of damage doesn’t always occur under storm conditions, when it does it takes longer to find and repair. Almost all power companies across the national grid are playing catch up football with their capital maintenance upgrade projects because of the constant tug of political war over rates which are regulated by PUCs.
    If power companies got all the rate increases they needed to support required financing for their Capital improvement programs the cost of power would become unaffordable for many across the country – including Florida. So it’s a constant balancing act within which FPL has historically done a pretty good job overall. – That’s one Philadelphia/LBK Sno-bird’s opinion.

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