How well did South Florida’s utilities restore power, phone and internet quickly after Hurricane Irma sideswiped South Florida? And how well did the providers communicate with their customers about the outages and when they could reasonably expect service restoration at their homes or businesses?
We know power, phone and internet are essential services for public safety, for schools, for running households and for running businesses. So the Miami Herald looked at the response of the region’s utilities through the lens of two key areas – communication and execution.
We also asked our readers. Through noon on Monday, Sept. 25, 799 people took our online survey asking about response and communication. We asked people to rate the service they receive from providers in various categories — “Terrific,” “Better than expected,” “OK but I expected better” and “Lousy.” While the poll is unscientific — and people who are suffering are more likely to fill out surveys than people who are happy — the results showed there are lots of areas for improvement, to put it lightly.
Let’s take a look at the three areas.
Communication response: Good, with some caveats.
We have to give Florida Power & Light an A for effort on this, with hourly updates, a website and an app for its customers to report and track outages. Yet, there were hiccups — FPL’s website and app were overloaded and weren’t working some of the time. At one point the utility was giving mixed messages and asking customers to re-enter their outage data.
Also, unlike in past storms, FPL did not break out outages by neighborhood. The utility said it did it for safety reasons — but it prevented the public from gaining a clear idea where the outages were greatest. Although FPL said its restoration program was according to a pre-set strategy — critical services first, as determined in consultation with the cities, then others — FPL did not show the areas that still didn’t have restoration on its map.
Yet the state’s largest utility does get high marks for holding near-daily briefings with reporters, being available by phone at other times and updating its outage numbers every hour by county. The utility also warned customers before the storm to prepare for long outages. Scores of readers who emailed with complaints about their wireless carriers or internet providers used FPL as a poster child for good communications.
Survey says: Of the 799 respondents, more readers said communication was “terrific” or “better than expected” – 325 in total – than who ranked it “lousy,” 277 of you. On the survey, 197 ranked communications from FPL as “OK.”
Execution response: Good.
Tens of thousands of customers suffered a week or more without power, when after Hurricanes Wilma and Andrew people went weeks or months without power. Overall, 92 percent of its 1.1 million accounts in Miami-Dade County and 85 percent of its 933,300 in Broward County lost power after Irma. At one point, FPL was battling outages in 35 counties, every county it services.
Power restoration was at first promised to the East Coast of Florida, including Miami-Dade and Broward, by the end of the day on Sept. 17, but then was extended through Sept. 19 for much of South Miami-Dade and remaining pockets. FPL said that it made its estimate for all but cases where damage to the electrical system was extensive.
On Monday, FPL spokesman Bill Orlove said FPL has restored all Irma-related outages. He said there may be some customers who sustained damage to their equipment that they are responsible for, and FPL can’t restore their power until the equipment is fixed.
Yet questions remain: Hurricane Irma only sideswiped South Florida with mostly tropical storm force winds. Could the outages have been as long as they were in Wilma and Andrew had the area suffered a direct hit or more flooding?
The widespread outages happened despite FPL’s spending nearly $3 billion, financed by its customers, over the past decade to “harden” its electrical grid against the next monster storm. The investor-owned utility says it responded quickly to restore outages and that its storm-hardening efforts are working, although questions remain about who is at fault for not trimming trees around power lines and whether or not underground lines did better in the storm. The city of Coral Gables is considering suing the utility over what it says was a slow response.
Survey says: Far more people (379 people) ranked FPL’s execution as “terrific” or “better than expected” than “lousy “ (245), while 175 ranked it OK but expected better.
Communication response: Needs improvement, with one notable exception.
In the days following the storm, customers reported everything from spotty service and dropped calls and long waits for texts to completely non-functioning service. But it was difficult for both customers and the media to get any straight answers about the extent of outages from Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. With the media, the providers would only talk about the status of outages at a statewide level and in generalities. The four providers said they could not break down the number of cell sites that were out of service in South Florida, even though they supplied site numbers for every county in Florida for the Federal Communications Commission’s “snapshot” reports in the aftermath of the storm. The FCC reports provided the number breakdown by county but did not include providers’ names.
Survey says: Nearly half of our 799 survey responders had AT&T service, 382, with the next most from T-Mobile with 194. Verizon customers numbered 132 and Sprint, 91. In total, 339 of you said communication was lousy while 301 said it was terrific or better than expected; 159 said it was just OK.
Of the providers, though, Verizon wins the fan prize in our survey. It was the only provider that garnered more “terrific” ratings than the other three categories combined.
Execution response: Needs improvement.
Half of cell sites in Miami-Dade and Broward were reported out on Sept. 11, one day after Irma barreled by South Florida. That figure was down to about 5 percent a week later, the last day the FCC published disaster-related outage reports for Irma. That suggests a response rate mirroring FPL’s progress.
All the providers said they brought in extra crews and had backup generators, and Verizon and AT&T said they deployed mobile cell units. To be sure, the carriers came under scrutiny after a disastrous response rate after Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast. After Sandy, and under pressure from customers and the FCC, they agreed to be more transparent about outages and make other concessions, such as allowing other carriers to use their towers free for routing calls after a disaster. After Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, there were widespread cellular outages, but the wireless carriers came back online faster than after Sandy. Now carriers are focused on restoring service after Hurricane Maria, too.
Although we did not ask about this in our survey, the advice that old-fashioned land lines (not powered by the internet, as most are today) may hold up better after a storm may not hold up after all. The Miami Herald heard from some land line customers without service, and they were as frustrated as others. (Phone service over the internet is covered under the next section.)
While during and after Irma, the wireless carriers waived fees and data overages, dozens of consumers have said they believe the companies have throttled down speeds since the storm.
To be sure, the national carriers have had to deal with three devastating back-to-back hurricanes in a month’s time smacking their service areas.
Communication response: You said it — lousy.
We heard it loud and clear, in our email boxes and on the phone, on social media, in the line at Publix and in our surveys. We experienced it, too, trying to get information from the companies for our reports. All three major carriers provided poor customer service during these outages. Thousands of customers have complained about getting no answers from their providers or getting nonsensical or mixed messages (one Comcast customer said he has received more than a dozen estimated restore times, none of which were met). There were reports that technicians were telling customers something completely different from what they were hearing from customer service representatives or corporate offices. And there were multiple missed appointments. The scripted responses during calls and online chats were most irksome and not helpful, customers said. On top of that, the companies, like the cellular providers, have not been open with the media about the extent of their outages in South Florida. Only Atlantic Broadband, in recent days, has said how many of its Miami-area customers were not receiving service.
Survey says: Comcast customers registered 399 responses while AT&T U-verse customers registered 341. There were just 31 responses from Atlantic Broadband. In the survey with 799 respondents, 524 said communication was “lousy,” while just 174 said it was terrific or better than expected; 101 reported “OK but not as good as expected” service. Two-thirds of respondents who said they had either Comcast Xfinity or AT&T U-verse service rated communication as “lousy.” In both cases, under 10 percent rated their services as “terrific.”
Execution response: Needs improvement.
We hold this category to as high a standard as we do power and cellular services because internet access is now a utility many livelihoods depend upon; indeed, many businesses and households also get their phone service over the internet. Readers gave this category a “lousy” rating, even though according to state figures service was reported restored to 88 percent of accounts statewide by Monday, Sept. 18, the last day the FCC reported numbers. The numbers of restorations statewide sound impressive, going from 7.5 million to 900,000 outages in a week. But because we don’t know where the outages were by county, we cannot ascertain whether the bulk of the outages were in South Florida. Comcast and AT&T would not give numbers for their outages in South Florida. Atlantic Broadband, the smallest of the three in South Florida, said 2,000 were still without service on Friday, Sept. 22, without revealing how many customers it has in the region.
To be sure, restoration of internet service is complicated and time-consuming work and it has to come behind power restoration, explained several experts, and all three carriers said they brought in extra crews and equipment to handle the outages. Yet, only Comcast’s spokesman offered details on the scope of the restoration and challenges it had to overcome (without giving numbers).
The national carriers have had to deal with three devastating hurricanes barreling through their service areas in a short period.
Survey says: 463 respondents out of 799 said response was lousy, almost twice all the other categories combined. In the survey, 141 ranked it terrific or better than expected and 105 said it was OK.
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