How to not be caught in the dark after the next big storm

September 6, 2018 Michelle Renshaw

3 steps utilities can take to ensure their communities are prepared for the next natural disaster

 

As a Florida native, I’ve enjoyed countless summers on the beach, building sandcastles as a kid, sunbathing with friends as a teenager, and chasing after my own kids as an adult. I’ve visited Disney World so many times that I don’t even need a map to get to my favorite rides!

However, living in Florida is not all sunshine and hanging out with Mickey Mouse, we also face hurricane season from June 1 through November 30 every year. We tend to have several years with a few weak storms or no storms at all, but we are always anticipating when the next big storm will come. In recent years the hurricane season has become more and more extreme. As an engineer, I have been on the frontlines trying to find ways to mitigate the potential risks of these storms for my community.

 

 

This increased risk for natural disaster is not limited to Florida. In 2017 alone, the United States was rocked by three major hurricanes: Harvey, Irma, and Maria. The responses and restoration for all three storms was vastly different. Because of extra steps taken by utilities in Florida, specifically Florida Power & Light (FPL), restoring power was a smoother process than in Texas and especially Puerto Rico, where some residents are still without power almost a year later.

The clear difference in response provides lessons that can be applied throughout coastal areas. Below are three steps every utility should proactively be taking to mitigate potential hurricane risks.

 

1. Preparing the existing infrastructure

The current infrastructure in many coastal communities simply will not cut it any longer. Utilities must take proactive measures to ensure their equipment is ready to meet the more severe weather, ranging from high speed winds to extreme flooding.  

In the power industry we call this “hardening” of equipment. Hardening efforts include upgrading old, wooden poles to concrete poles. This effort made a huge difference in the number of poles that were damaged in the 2004 storms (Charley, Francis, Ivan, and Jeanne) versus the 2017 storms. We are now installing poles that can withstand 145+ winds.

We are also converting poor performing feeders from overhead to underground and installing “smart” devices such as automatic feeder switches to allow remote access for switching. This equipment enables utilities to remotely isolate an outage allowing crews to restore power more easily.

Another important hardening technique is upgrading conductors for more reliable service. These efforts drastically reduced the number of outages after Irma compared to weaker hurricanes that struck Florida in the mid-2000s.

 

2. Developing an action plan

Natural disasters have become a reality in the coastal regions. Most local governments provide constant communication before, during, and after a storm through outlets like news stations and social media. Additionally, state and federal governments might declare a state of emergency prior to landfall to make sure every resource is available to keep communities safe.

Utilities need to have action plans similar to government entities. FPL has an action plan called STORM in place to restore power as quickly as possible. Before a major storm event, FPL reaches out to other utilities throughout the country for volunteers to help after the storm passes. Material is also transported to the area of anticipated impact. Once the storm has passed, FPL mobilizes those on stand-by to the priority territories to begin restoration efforts.

 

3. Restoration

Even with a well-executed preparation plan, damage and loss of power is often inevitable. How communities respond and help one another is paramount to returning to normal life. After Hurricane Irma passed, I remember walking around our neighborhood to check on our neighbors and assess damage. A large tree had fallen across one of the streets, blocking several people from being able to leave their houses. The neighborhood made sure that those unable to leave had everything they needed until a tree service was available to clear the road.

_q_tweetable:It truly takes a village to restore power after a major storm._q_Similarly, FPL instructs its employees and contractors to ensure their families and homes are safe before reporting for STORM duty. Once it is safe to travel, employees, contractors, and volunteers from across the country join forces to restore power. Last year after Irma, the Stantec team assisted in tasks from patrolling damage along critical feeders to delivering food and water to crews in the field. It truly takes a village to restore power after a major storm.

 

Prepare, plan, and implement

As most Floridians know, preparation—whether you are a utility or a household—is key. Stocking up on items such as bottled water, batteries, and non-perishable foods should take place prior to the beginning of hurricane season, not two hours before a storm makes landfall. We are all familiar with the news broadcasting the grocery stores with empty shelves where water once was. Preparing well in advance allows you to focus efforts on securing your house and making travel accommodations, if necessary, which cannot be done far in advance.

 

The backyard at author Michelle Renshaw's Jacksonville, Florida, home following 2017's Hurricane Irma.

 

As a community, we can all take steps to be prepared. Utilities constantly look for ways to strengthen existing infrastructure. If a robust hardening program is not economically feasible, an inspection program is a lower cost option for assessing current equipment. Utilities can send surveyors to inspect critical feeders to visually assess the condition of poles, transformers, and other critical equipment. Once damage is reported, crews can be dispatched to make repairs immediately.

At home, we can perform similar inspections of our properties. Make sure trees are trimmed and no large branches are near windows or the roof. Look around and see if you can identify potential threats to your home and take whatever steps possible to protect yourself and your family.

No one can truly predict how severe a storm season will be, but we should all know the steps to take to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our property before the storm hits.

About the Author

Michelle Renshaw

Michelle Renshaw specializes in overhead distribution line design engineering and analysis. She’s managed and designed several types of distribution projects including hardening, system expansion, automatic feeder switch (AFS) installations, and overhead to underground conversions.

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