When Hurricane Irma side-swiped South Florida, almost every home fell into darkness and tropical heat.
Tens of thousands of customers suffered a week or more without power. Overall, nearly 4.5 million of Florida Power & Light’s 4.9 million customers had their power fail, including 92 percent of accounts in Miami-Dade County and 85 percent in Broward County.
The widespread outages happened despite FPL spending nearly $3 billion over the past decade to “harden” its electrical grid against the next monster storm. The investor-owned utility — which by law makes a guaranteed profit for shareholders between 9.6 and 11.6 percent — says it responded quickly to restore outages and that its storm-hardening efforts are working.
“We were able to get the vast majority of people’s lights back on within a few days,” said FPL spokesman Peter Robbins.
“There is no such thing as a hurricane-proof system,” added Robbins, explaining that no transmission systems failed and far fewer utility poles went down than in previous storms. “The system has performed very well.”
In other words, the highly touted $3 billion project was never expected to keep the lights on and air conditioning flowing — even though Irma fell short of a hurricane in South Florida. Welcome to life in a storm zone.
That’s not good enough for some local leaders and residents
“There’s a problem here and it needs to be addressed,” said Craig Leen, city attorney for Coral Gables. “It took too long to restore power.”
The storm could have been worse: Irma drifted west at the last minute and struck South Florida with far less severity than forecasters predicted. In Miami-Dade, sustained winds remained at the level of a very strong tropical storm, with hurricane-strength gusts up to 99 mph, according to preliminary readings from the National Weather Service. FPL’s upgrades are designed to withstand winds up to 150 mph.
“What it makes you realize is that if we had a bigger hurricane, it would have taken weeks or maybe months” to repair the grid, Leen said.
(FPL blamed the Gables for its outages in a strongly worded statement, saying “self-entitled politicians” resisted tree-trimming efforts.)
Across its Florida service territory, the company has installed gargantuan concrete poles (sometimes infuriating property owners), buried power lines underground (for cities willing to pay the substantial price), developed “smart” meter technology and added pumps in electrical substations to prevent flooding. The effort began in 2006 and is ongoing.
By Wednesday afternoon, a week and a half after the storm passed, 1,780 customers in Miami-Dade and Broward had no power, according to FPL.
Petu Kummala’s home, in northeast Miami’s Shorecrest neighborhood, was one of them.
“Twelve days, it takes a toll on you,” he said. “We feel completely ignored.”
In Miami Beach, FPL turned the lights back on for Jen Squilla nearly a week ago. But that’s all she got. The lines powering her air conditioning and refrigerator still haven’t been repaired. Many units in her apartment building are in a similar situation, according to Squilla.
Every day, FPL moves her estimated time of restoration to the next day, said Squilla, who was still waiting for relief Wednesday afternoon.
One class-action lawsuit has already been filed against the utility on behalf of customers. The village of Pinecrest, where 35 percent of customers still lacked power a week after the storm, is also considering a lawsuit.
Paying the bill
When the power goes out, residents and businesses ultimately foot FPL’s cleanup bill.
“They’re just passing the cost on to us,” said state Sen. José Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat running for Congress. “This does not hurt their bottom line.”
The Public Service Commission, the state body that regulates utilities, approved FPL’s request for $318.5 million in costs from Hurricane Matthew with little comment earlier this year. Critics say the PSC has a cozy relationship with utilities. (The commission refused to answer questions from the Miami Herald Wednesday.)
Rodriguez questioned why Juno Beach-based FPL had not invested more in tree-trimming and moving power lines under ground, where they are safe from wind although potentially vulnerable to flooding.
“It all comes back to the fact that they are a for-profit monopoly,” he said. “The incentives are not there. We can’t hold their feet to the fire.”
FPL now pays 25 percent of the cost for underground power lines, which are far more expensive than overhead. Municipalities and developers pay the rest of the tab.
The utility defends its response to the mass outages following Irma — and says investments in storm readiness are paying off. The company said 2,000 utility poles went down this time, compared to nearly 12,000 damaged by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. (The poles downed by Wilma were collected for study in a “graveyard” near Lake Okeechobee.)
Following Irma, 40 percent of outages were fixed after one full day of restoration work last Tuesday, according to FPL. After Wilma, only 4 percent of outages were fixed over the first day, the utility said.
Part of the problem might be the public’s understanding of what storm hardening can do, Robbins said.
“We tell customers before a hurricane to be prepared for outages and in some cases extended outages,” he said. “There was not a square mile of our service territory that did not get hit.”
Florida’s Public Counsel J.R. Kelly, a public official who represents the state’s utility customers, says he will take a “hard look” at how the companies performed during Irma.
“With respect to FPL, they spent $3 billion,” Kelly said. “The first thing I want to know is what did the $3 billion pay for? And if what it paid for failed, why did it fail?”
According to FPL, the money paid for the strengthening of 700 power lines to critical facilities such as police stations, hospitals and gas stations; burying 60 power lines underground; clearing vegetation from 150,000 miles of lines; inspecting 150,000 poles per year; and installing 4.9 million “smart” meters that can help predict and prevent power outages.
Across the state, Kelly said he’s heard allegations that utilities’ communications and high-tech grids failed, and that poles went down too easily. And almost a year after Matthew hit Northeast Florida, FPL still hasn’t submitted details of the damage being covered for by rate payers.
“We’ve got to gather the facts,” Kelly said. “The sooner we get it [for Irma], the better.”
Profits for FPL, the state’s largest power company, are booming.
In 2016, FPL reported net income of $1.7 billion, up 5 percent from 2015 and 14 percent from 2014. But the company charges customers the lowest utility rates in Florida, state data show. The average bill paid by customers has fallen by 6 percent since Wilma, according to FPL.
Part of the utility’s financial success comes from keeping expenses down.
Take FPL’s tree-trimming budget: In 2012, when the company served 4.6 million homes and businesses, it spent $61.7 million on vegetation management. In 2016, after adding 300,000 new accounts, FPL’s spending on trimming dropped to $59.9 million.
“These utilities answer to the stockholders,” said Bill Newton, deputy director of the Florida Consumer Action Network, a consumer advocacy group.
Downed trees were blamed for many of South Florida’s power outages.
“Our tree-trimming program is aggressive, and we make sure to keep our lines clear,” Robbins said. “Customers need to know they are responsible for the trimming in their backyards.”
The tree-trimming budget hasn’t grown, he said, because 90 percent of new power lines are placed underground.
FPL is raising rates by $400 million this year, followed by a $411 million hike over the next three years, in part to pay for further storm hardening. That means the typical customer using 1,000 kilowatt hours per month would see a $9.50 increase in their monthly bill by 2020.
Sweating in the dark
It’s hard not to get cranky sweating through South Florida’s tropical heat with no power. In some cases, it can even be a matter of staying alive, as the deaths of nine elders at a Hollywood nursing home showed.
In terms of public perception, FPL blundered by promising Miami-Dade residents it would restore power by Sunday. Later, the utility said areas of Northeast Dade wouldn’t get power back until Monday and parts of South Dade would stay dark until Tuesday.
(FPL says the company provided Sunday as “an estimated time of restoration,” not a “promise” or “guarantee.” But at a news conference last week, FPL spokesman Brian Garner said, “We are working non-stop to meet the expectations we have given.”)
“You feel like you’re going in a circle, and you have to start all over again,” said Pinecrest resident Michelle Lucas, who went more than a week without power.
She was furious when she saw FPL closed her ticket — the record of her outage — before it had restored power to her home.
“I feel they’re just closing tickets out just to get rid of tickets,” she told the Herald, adding that neighbors told her they’ve had the same problem.
Other utilities around Florida also blew self-imposed deadlines, leading to criticism from Gov. Rick Scott.
“Our expectation is, if you put a deadline out, you meet your deadline,” Scott said Tuesday in Tampa.
In downtown Miami, where many lines are underground, “most places did not lose power,” said Alyce Robertson, executive director of the Downtown Development Agency.
FPL says it’s too early to tell whether burying lines saved people’s power during Irma. And it might not be “a magic bullet” for hurricane preparedness anyway because of the risks of flooding, according to Ted Kury, director of energy studies at the University of Florida’s Public Utility Research Center, which advises utilities.
In Golden Beach, where lines were put underground several years ago, FPL data showed all 400 customer accounts lost power.
“We were disappointed because our investment in undergrounding did not yield the benefits we anticipated,” said Mayor Glenn Singer in an email.
Alexander Diaz, Golden Beach’s town manager, said Irma didn’t damage the underground lines. The problem, Diaz said, was that Golden Beach depends on its link to neighboring cities to keep the lights on.
“Given that most surrounding communities are not underground, we just like all other cities [were] in the dark,” he said.
In Biscayne Park, where leaders approved the installation of new, sturdier concrete poles over the objections of some residents worried about property values, 49 percent of customers still had no power a week after the storm.
“The concrete poles remained intact,” said Mayor Tracy Truppman. “Service to the residents on the hardened lines was restored promptly.”
After Hurricane Wilma hit, 98 percent of homes and businesses in Miami-Dade and Broward lost power. Many customers were in the dark for weeks.
Public outrage followed. Lawmakers threatened greater regulation.
“Greedy dogs!” one woman said of FPL’s brass at a public hearing in Fort Lauderdale in 2006.
The storm was the impetus for FPL’s storm-hardening push. Under pressure, utilities agreed to concessions such as more frequent tree-trimming, enhancing pole inspections and covering some of the cost of burying power lines. But the promise was never that power could be fully maintained.
“Does all this work guarantee that no one will lose power in the next major hurricane?” then-FPL executive Geisha Williams wrote in a 2007 Miami Herald column. “No, it does not. Does it assure that more people will regain access to critical services sooner or have their own power restored sooner after the next hurricane? Yes, it does.”
For some residents, Irma showed FPL is having a hard time living up to that promise.
At Bay Oaks, an assisted living facility in Edgewater with 26 residents, power to the elevator to the building’s second floor stayed out for a week, even though the lights and air conditioning came back far sooner. (They’re powered on separate lines.) That meant five residents couldn’t return to their rooms upstairs, according to Kathryn Kassner, the facility’s administrator. One second-floor resident, a 6’7, 270-pound man, came down with a severe fever and had to be carted down the stairs Saturday by paramedics. Then, he couldn’t return from the hospital because he wasn’t able to walk up the stairs.
Kassner said she spent all week on the phone with FPL before power was finally restored to the elevator late Monday night.
“It’s crazy. We were begging and pleading and lamenting with every person we spoke to,” Kassner said. “We had five ticket numbers and no results. It’s the ultimate in frustration.”
Miami Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Joey Flechas and Tampa Bay Times staff writer Langston Taylor contributed to this report.