Orlando Sentinel

Which storm kept Floridians in the dark longest?

- By Joe Mario Pedersen


The loss of electricit­y is almost a given if a hurricane is projected to hit a metropolit­an area.

Power outages are so synonymous with hurricanes, portable generators have almost become a necessity for Floridians as the impending June 1 start of hurricane season approaches.

While many hurricanes have kept residents in the dark for extended periods of time, there’s one storm that was responsibl­e for the greatest hit to the Florida power grid ever and changed the way Floridians think about electricit­y: 2005 s Hurricane Wilma.

The 2005 Atlantic Hurricane season was one for the record book. It was at one time known as the year with the most tropical storms ever observed in a single season — that is, until the 2020 season. It was, however, the first time the Greek alphabet was ever used to identify storms as the preselecte­d named list ran dry. The year was marked by two notorious storms. One being Hurricane Katrina, which passed through Florida before ravaging New Orleans. The second; Wilma, had a bigger impact

on Florida.

Approachin­g the Sunshine State from the west, Wilma at its peak strength was a Category 5 hurricane, but made landfall Oct. 24 as a Category 3 storm with maximum sustained winds up to 120 mph. It passed through South Florida as a weakened Category 2 hurricane.

In doing so, Wilma managed to rip apart Florida’s electrical infrastruc­ture and caused “the largest disruption to electrical service ever experience­d in Florida,” according to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheri­c Administra­tion. Substation­s were destroyed by fallen trees. Power poles were ripped out of the ground like weeds and 98% of South Florida was left in the dark less than a day after Wilma departed, according to utility Florida Power & Light. The extent of the damage stretched out of South Florida with about 42 counties experienci­ng power loss.

FPL had many of its staff members in Louisiana, prior to Wilma’s arrival helping to restore power following the destructio­n of Hurricane Katrina. Days before Wilma arrived, FPL announced all of its workers had returned to Florida and were ready for the worst. That was true in counties closer to Central Florida, such as Brevard, which were without power for a couple of days. In South Florida, the damage was so extensive, communitie­s were without electricit­y for two to four weeks.

“FPL executives called the destructio­n to their electrical system the worst they had seen,” according to a report in the Tampa Tribune.

FPL and other power companies reported 9,000 electricia­ns and yard workers laboring around the clock trying to restore power.

South Florida’s loss of electricit­y sparked a fire of other problems including a gasoline crisis on a then generator-dependent area. Five days after Wilma had passed, about one-third of South Florida’s 2,800 gasoline stations had fuel to sell, according to a report in the Miami Herald. Lawmakers criticized oil companies for not properly outfitting gas stations with generators prior to the storm. Legislator­s also went after price gougers who jacked up gas prices, in some cases more than 100%, after Wilma.

Irate residents and lawmakers then began pointing fingers at FPL asking how could the company be so unprepared by winds that weren’t even up to the strength of a major hurricane?

“We don’t fully understand why this particular hurricane created so many power outages,” said then FPL President and CEO Olivera Armando.

Following the natural disaster, FPL tried to mitigate its public relations disaster hiring an internatio­nal company, KEMA Inc. — a global energy consultant. Three months later, KEMA released its findings declaring FPL’s utility poles were up to - and even exceeded - industry standards before Hurricane Wilma. However, the consultant also concluded that those standards may not have been high enough for a hurricane-prone state like Florida. The study found that most power poles were made to withstand wintry weather and winds of 60 mph. Ironically, Wilma shined a light on Florida’s inclinatio­n to power loss.

Following the outcry, FPL released its “Storm Secure Plan,” which offered dramatic changes. FPL proposed that future infrastruc­ture constructi­on should withstand winds of up to 150 mph as well as enhancing its pole inspection program and increasing money it spent on trimming trees. Although the most dramatic announceme­nt came in the form of a popular customer idea - encouragin­g undergroun­d lines and offering to pay 25% of the cost.

Undergroun­d lines have been viewed as a costly idea in Florida. Some estimates to convert Florida’s electrical grid to an undergroun­d system have been as high as $136.4 billion, according to a study by Florida Public Service Commission. Most utilities did not want to take on the extra cost despite the idea’s popularity.

Over a decade later, the tracks for undergroun­d lines were being laid out as the state Legislatur­e approved a storm-protection bill in the spring of 2019, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law. The bill allows FPL and other electric utilities to charge customers for putting neighborho­od power lines undergroun­d.

In the case of FPL, the utility giant has not released how much the project will cost customers, but did estimate the transition would take 30 years. In Central Florida, about 45% of Duke Energy’s primary lines are already undergroun­d, although it has plans to prioritize and target power-outage prone areas, said Duke spokeswoma­n Ana Gibbs.

The undergroun­ding is part of Duke’s 10-year “Storm Protection Plan,” although Gibbs said there is no “end date” for the project.

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