After the massive hurricane struck Florida in 2005, FPL invested to make the grid stronger, smarter and more storm-resilient for our customers.
Floridians were already exhausted from a series of hurricanes and near misses when Hurricane Wilma slammed the state as a Category 3 storm 15 years ago.
Major Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne made direct hits in Florida Power & Light Company’s service area in 2004. The next hurricane season, Dennis, Katrina and Rita hit or affected FPL customers before Wilma made landfall as a major hurricane in southwest Florida on Oct. 24, 2005.
Wilma was a turning point. I’ve been with the company since 1982 and worked the Hurricane Andrew restoration in 1992. Andrew was more powerful, but Wilma’s damage spread across a much larger area and capped a brutal 16 months of hurricanes. We knew we needed to make our energy grid stronger and smarter for the customers we serve.
Our distribution, transmission and substation systems were already built to meet or exceed National Electric Safety Code safety standards before Wilma. That wasn’t much consolation to the 3.2 million FPL customers whose power was knocked out by the hurricane. They deserved better. Our customers and our regulators and we ourselves knew that we needed to make fundamental, long-term changes.
So we embarked on a program called Storm Secure. We made significant investments to harden the grid, began a robust program of regular pole inspections and replacements, stepped up our trimming of trees and vegetation near overhead power lines and promoted the undergrounding of power lines.
In addition to taking measures like replacing wooden distribution and transmission structures with stronger wood, concrete or steel, we also set out to make the grid smarter. We initiated our Energy Smart Florida Program by investing in smart meters, automated feeder switches and other intelligent devices that detect problems before they occur and allow us to get the lights on faster if there is an outage. We also began using drones to help assess damage in areas that can be hard to reach immediately after a hurricane because of flooding or downed trees.
When Hurricane Irma struck in 2017, we saw some important differences after more than a decade of post-Wilma hardening efforts.
Category 4 Irma was stronger than Category 3 Wilma. It initially knocked out power to 4.4 million customers in all 35 counties FPL serves, compared to 3.2 million customers in 21 counties for Wilma. But restoration was quicker after Irma.
For Wilma, about 12,400 poles were damaged and 241 substations were de-energized. It took five days to get all the substations back online and 18 days to restore power to all FPL customers.
Irma damaged about 2,900 poles and 92 substations were de-energized. It took only one day to bring all the substations back online, instead of five, and all our customers were restored in 10 days, rather than 18.
The average FPL customer outage was 5.4 days for Wilma versus 2.1 for Irma.
The investments we’ve made to improve hurricane restoration have also improved day-to-day service for our customers. Last year, the company had its best year ever for reliability and won the 2019 ReliabilityOne™ National Reliability Excellence Award presented by PA Consulting for the fourth time in five years.
We listened to our customers, regulators and employees after Wilma to come up with an industry-leading program we can be proud of. We know that every hurricane is different and that nature often throws us curveballs. This year, with a more-active-than-normal hurricane season, we face the added challenge of responding during a pandemic. That’s uncharted territory. But when I see the way we have learned and improved in the 15 years since Wilma, I am confident we are better prepared than ever to respond on behalf of the customers we serve.