While so much has changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing that has not is hurricane season. Since I joined Florida Power & Light Company (FPL) in 1998, we’ve prepared for hurricane season year-round because we understand how important it is to keep the lights on for our customers. We know that we must keep our eyes on the tropics and be vigilant in our preparations for a potential hurricane.
Even if hurricanes don’t directly strike FPL’s service area, we always have to be ready to respond and many times we help others. This year, in the midst of the most active hurricane season since 2005, our crews have provided mutual assistance for hurricanes in New Jersey, Louisiana, Texas and Florida. Seeing the way we respond today has given me a perspective on how much things have changed.
During my first hurricane with the company in 1998, the way in which we responded is much different than it is today. Today, we can track outages on the FPL Power Tracker map (https://www.fplmaps.com/). We can see if a home or building is not receiving power and we can communicate in real-time.
During my first hurricane responses, instead of pulling up our cell phone GPS, lineworkers and restoration crews had to find a local AAA store and purchase small books containing maps and street atlases. We used these to locate street names and where we were going in areas that we may have never been before. In many cases, hurricanes knocked down street signs, so even maps could be unreliable, so we turned to the locals to give us directions and help us find our way.
Immediate cell phone calls or reliable service were a future amenity. To communicate with our command center, we had to find pay phones or go back to the office to find a usable phone.
Our teams had to manually provide information to supervisors and crews in the field, bringing packages of maps and handwritten information to restoration sites. Paper would easily get wet, making the map or information unreadable, and the handwriting wasn’t as consistent as reading a text message or email. We used runners to deliver the information and materials and report when tickets were complete instead of sending a quick email or phone call.
Today, of course, it’s incredibly different. The physical work is very much the same, from installing wire and replacing material. However, cell phones, email and other forms of technology has allowed our team to respond to our customers faster while making the grid more reliable. We can communicate in real-time and are able to use technology to see if everyone in a community has power and work to find a solution if they don’t.
We’ve made tremendous strides in the safety of our organization and hurricane response. Safety is our most important value, and we continue to make improvements in our safety culture, equipment and work methods. We are more confident than ever in the ability of our crews to work safely and efficiently to get the lights back on as quickly as possible for our customers.
FPL has made significant investments in upgrading the energy grid and enhancing reliability for our customers as well. We’ve hardened main power lines and installed smart-grid technology that helps detect problems and restore service faster. These investments have also changed what previously may have been a rebuild into just a repair, taking less time to restore power to our customers.
As we reach the 15-year anniversary of Hurricane Wilma, we can see just how different restoration looks. Following Wilma, a Category 3 hurricane, it took us 18 days to restore power to all 3.2 million customers across 21 counties who were impacted. In 2017 following Hurricane Irma, a Category 4 hurricane, restoration crews were able to restore power to 4.4 million customers in 35 counties in 10 days.
Not only has technology allowed us to better communicate in the field, but these investments have paid off for our customers by making the energy grid smarter, stronger and more storm resilient.
Most recently, COVID-19 changed the way we respond to storms. During Tropical Storm Isaias, we instituted numerous health and safety precautions for the well-being of our customers and restoration crews. Every restoration site had temperature checks and we minimized crew movement and kept the same crews together in the same area. We also encouraged social distancing whenever possible and provided masks and sanitizing materials to our crews, and conducted deep cleaning of worksites.
These changes adjusted our restoration efforts, but not our commitment and efficiency. Our crews restored power to approximately 40,000 customers before the storm left the state, working throughout the weekend to restore outages as Isaias moved along the east coast of the state.
This year’s storm season is unprecedented, and looks as different from 2017 as it does from 1998, as we battle both a pandemic and what has already been an active storm season. Mother Nature is unrelenting, but so too are the men and women I am honored to work alongside. I am constantly inspired by my co-workers’ discipline, perseverance, generosity, courage and relentless commitment to our customers as they step up when times are toughest and humbly serve others in times of need.
Rob is an Area Manager for FPL and serves as an Incident Commander during storm restorations.