Florida hur­ri­cane re­cov­ery won’t be fast dur­ing pan­demic

Miami Herald - - Front Page - BY ADRI­ANA BRASILEIRO AND ALEX HAR­RIS abrasileir­o@mi­ami­her­ald.com ahar­ris@mi­ami­her­ald.com

FPL may not be able to bring crews from out of state to help with hur­ri­cane re­cov­ery due to

COVID-19 re­stric­tions. Out­ages will last longer and res­i­dents will prob­a­bly spend more days with­out power.

Ev­ery year be­fore hur­ri­cane sea­son, Florida Power & Light and oth­ers on the front lines of dis­as­ter re­sponse make plans to bring re­in­force­ments from other states to help if a big one hits. In the past, con­trac­tors and crews have come from as far away as Canada to aid lo­cal util­ity work­ers in get­ting homes back on the grid.

In the year of the COVID-19 pan­demic, that may not hap­pen.

The prob­a­ble re­sult: More days with­out power or in­ter­net, prob­a­bly in swel­ter­ing sum­mer heat.

Con­sider that in the best of sce­nar­ios, with a grid that had been for­ti­fied by bil­lions in in­vest­ments, it took FPL more than 10 days to re­store power to some ar­eas in Florida after Hur­ri­cane Irma. Nearly all its service area — 90 per­cent, or 4.4 mil­lion con­sumers — lost power.

This year, so­cial-dis­tanc­ing mea­sures and travel re­stric­tions could dra­mat­i­cally change lots of things about hur­ri­cane re­cov­ery. Working with in­sur­ers, al­ready a gru­el­ing and lengthy or­deal, may grind even slower from a short­age of ad­justers.

Shel­ters, be­fore and after storms,

will have so­cial-dis­tanc­ing rules and less room. The Red Cross, in fact, is urg­ing res­i­dents who might be forced to evac­u­ate to con­sider shel­ters as a last re­sort. In­stead, they should make plans now to re­duce the risk of a dou­ble dis­as­ter in the event of a hur­ri­cane strike — storm dam­age and a po­ten­tial COVID-19 ill­ness.

“Find a fam­ily mem­ber or a friend that’s out­side the tra­jec­tory of the hur­ri­cane and shel­ter with them. If not, go to a ho­tel and spend the night in your own pri­vate room,” said Grace Mein­hofer, a spokes­woman for the

South Florida re­gion.

Of course, the big­gest player in re­cov­ery is FPL and the util­ity is adapt­ing its plans for this hur­ri­cane sea­son.

“The pan­demic is go­ing to im­pact us in ways that aren’t help­ful be­cause it cre­ates less pro­duc­tiv­ity,” Eric Si­lagy, FPL’s CEO, said in an in­ter­view last week when the com­pany started to hold hur­ri­cane drills. “That’s why I re­ally need cus­tomers to be pre­pared be­cause we may have ex­tended out­ages.”

Mas­sive stag­ing ar­eas will be down­sized and spread out. Mul­ti­ple crews won’t be al­lowed to con­gre­gate in large groups at stag­ing sites. Tem­per­a­ture checks will be manda­tory for ev­ery sin­gle re­sponse team mem­ber. And get­ting ex­tra peo­ple to help may be prob­lem­atic as con­firmed coro­n­avirus cases are on the rise in nearly half of all states, with Florida record­ing record num­bers in re­cent days.

Weather ex­perts are pre­dict­ing an above-av­er­age 2020 At­lantic hur­ri­cane sea­son, which started June 1 and ends Novem­ber 30. Even be­fore the of­fi­cial start of the sea­son two named storms formed in the At­lantic last month. The pos­si­bil­ity of a dou­ble calamity as the coro­n­avirus is lay­ered on top of a po­ten­tially ac­tive hur­ri­cane sea­son is a plan­ner’s worst night­mare.

Sa­man­tha Mon­tano, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of emer­gency man­age­ment at The Mas­sachusetts Mar­itime Academy, said a se­vere storm like Hur­ri­cane Michael or Hur­ri­cane Irma would stress the state and na­tion’s abil­ity to re­spond while keep­ing peo­ple safe from the virus.

“I don’t think Florida, given their case num­bers right now, is ready to han­dle an event like that. Think­ing of do­ing an Irma size evac­u­a­tion event right now is hor­ri­fy­ing,” she said. “I don’t think that hap­pens with­out a huge spread of COVID.”

For FPL, hur­ri­cane train­ing this year has fo­cused not just on turn­ing on the lights but pre­vent­ing the spread of the se­ri­ous res­pi­ra­tory ill­ness that has killed more than 3,200 peo­ple in the state and over 121,000 na­tion­wide since March.

Though much of South Florida started to grad­u­ally re­open ear­lier this month, so­cial-dis­tanc­ing guide­lines and tight re­stric­tions mean that FPL just can’t do hur­ri­canes like it used to.

SMALLER STAG­ING SITES

The util­ity’s stag­ing sites, the back­bone of FPL’s mas­sive hur­ri­cane re­sponse oper­a­tions, won’t run at full ca­pac­ity to re­duce the risk of trans­mis­sion among work­ers. The util­ity has 100 stag­ing sites ready to go across Florida.

In past re­sponses, the sites have op­er­ated like bustling camp­grounds where hun­dreds of peo­ple con­verge to launch restora­tion ef­forts. FPL work­ers and con­trac­tors eat, sleep, shower and do laun­dry in tents and trail­ers while trucks are fu­eled, equip­ment is moved and restora­tion plans are de­cided by lo­gis­tics teams closely gath­ered around screens with real-time images of the grid.

That won’t hap­pen this year. In­stead, there will be new, more widely spaced out stag­ing ar­eas and ex­panded use of smaller “mi­cro” ar­eas.

“I can’t do things in a mass way,” Si­lagy said.

The un­cer­tainty of backup help also adds a po­ten­tial new chal­lenge.

When Hur­ri­cane Irma hit Florida in Septem­ber 2017, the util­ity used crews from 30 states and Canada to re­store elec­tric­ity, de­ploy­ing 28,000 work­ers across its cov­er­age area. Ev­ery one of the 35 coun­ties served by FPL was af­fected, and 90 per­cent of the util­ity’s 5 mil­lion cus­tomers lost power. This year, the flow of out-of­s­tate help will de­pend on travel re­stric­tions and COVID-19 trends in other states.

The util­ity will rely more heav­ily on tech­nol­ogy such as ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and drones to speed up restora­tion work. What

FPL calls smart grid tech­nol­ogy al­lows the sys­tem to re­pair it­self, or to iso­late out­ages with the use of smart switches. And drones will be busier this hur­ri­cane sea­son as they can quickly as­sess dam­age and help crews plan re­pairs. Dur­ing Irma, FPL had over 50 drone teams that con­ducted more than 1,300 flights to iden­tify prob­lems after the storm.

VOL­UN­TEERS TO WORK RE­MOTELY

Lead­ing dis­as­ter re­lief or­ga­ni­za­tions like the Amer­i­can Red Cross are also mak­ing ma­jor changes to hur­ri­cane re­sponse plan­ning.

A key man­ager of shel­ters in South Florida, the or­ga­ni­za­tion staffed and ran evac­u­a­tion cen­ters where thou­sands of res­i­dents sought refuge dur­ing the largest mass evac­u­a­tion in U.S. his­tory ahead of Irma. Vic­tims spent many days at Red Cross-run shel­ters re­ceiv­ing meals and a place to rest, as well as health ser­vices and emo­tional sup­port from an army of vol­un­teers.

This year, refuge will look very dif­fer­ent. A typ­i­cal evac­u­a­tion cen­ter will need to spread peo­ple out, pro­vide a well­ness and tem­per­a­ture check to ev­ery­one en­ter­ing the space and also have an iso­la­tion area for evac­uees who are show­ing signs of ill­ness. Shel­ter staff will pro­vide per­sonal pro­tec­tive equip­ment to all guests and to vol­un­teers, and sev­eral hand-wash­ing sta­tions will be set up to pro­vide bet­ter hy­giene, said Mein­hofer.

In Mi­ami-Dade, emer­gency man­agers are ex­pand­ing po­ten­tial shel­ters to 82 from 20 that were avail­able in 2017 for Irma, to en­sure there is ex­tra space: in­stead of giv­ing each per­son an area of 20 square feet in­side the shel­ter, the county is in­creas­ing it to 36 square feet. And county man­agers are also plan­ning COVID-19 screen­ing at the door, to be able to sep­a­rate the in­fected and symp­to­matic from the healthy.

But just like FPL, the

Red Cross will prob­a­bly have a staffing prob­lem if a big storm hits. Though more vol­un­teers signed up to work in hur­ri­cane re­sponse this year, get­ting them to shel­ters will be tricky. And the Red Cross vol­un­teer work force tra­di­tion­ally has a high percentage of older peo­ple who are at higher risk of se­vere in­fec­tion if they are con­tam­i­nated by the coro­n­avirus.

The plan is to of­fer some ser­vices vir­tu­ally, though even those new pro­to­cols may not work in case the shel­ters also lose power.

AD­JUSTER SHORT­AGE WORS­ENS

And then there’s in­surance ad­justers, the peo­ple who in­spect dam­age in a home or busi­ness. It’s an in-per­son visit that’s es­sen­tial to file an in­surance claim.

Daniel Odess, pres­i­dent of Coral Gables-based com­mer­cial in­surance firm Glob­alPro, said his clients al­ready are hav­ing a hard time get­ting ad­justers to visit their prop­er­ties in per­son due to COVID-19 con­cerns.

If a pow­er­ful storm does hit, he wor­ries that in­surance ad­justers will face travel re­stric­tions and safety pro­to­cols that will fur­ther slow down the process.

Be­fore the pan­demic, there were al­ready is­sues with hav­ing enough posthur­ri­cane ad­justers speed­ily in­spect­ing prop­er­ties. The many storms of 2017 meant that res­i­dents of the Florida Keys were last in line for a visit from the trav­el­ing pack of ad­justers that roam the coun­try after dis­as­ters. It ground re­cov­ery to a halt.

“We have a short­age of ad­justers no mat­ter what,” Odess said. “COVID is a com­pound­ing is­sue.”

An­other worry for Odess is some­thing he’s seen with his com­mer­cial clients hit with busi­ness in­ter­rup­tions and dam­ages from back to back crises: the coro­n­avirus shut­downs and the oc­ca­sional ri­ot­ing and loot­ing along­side the Black Lives Mat­ter protests.

When sev­eral of his clients at­tempted to file a claim for a bro­ken win­dow from the ri­ot­ing, he said the in­surance com­pany wanted to know how much money they were mak­ing dur­ing the pan­demic. The in­surance com­pa­nies wanted to base the claim pay­out on the lower in­come busi­nesses are mak­ing dur­ing the shut­down, not the pre-pan­demic cash flow.

Odess sees that as an omi­nous warning for hur­ri­cane sea­son, where busi­nesses struck by a storm might only be com­pen­sated back to pan­demic lev­els of in­come.

“It’s fore­shad­ow­ing an is­sue that’s go­ing to take hold here,” he said. “This is an in­cred­i­bly com­plex is­sue and I be­lieve pol­i­cy­hold­ers are in for a trou­bling time if we’re struck by a pow­er­ful storm.”

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