Broward County

When the water stopped flowing, the backup plan should have worked. It didn’t.

After a Florida Power & Light subcontractor damaged a 42-inch water main at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, a backup water line was supposed to switch on and continue the flow.

It didn’t happen.

The “redundant system” malfunctioned — and water stopped flowing to the Fiveash treatment plant.

That left Fort Lauderdale and surrounding communities with an outage that shut down stores, restaurants and theaters, and left thousands of people scrambling to buy bottled water.

Seeing an unfolding crisis, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis declared an emergency and the governor sent in supplies while crews worked to patch the damage.

Trantalis said Friday that the malfunction could be linked to aging infrastructure and a lack of testing for functionality.

“We have an old system that was installed 40, 50 or 60 years ago in some places,” he told the Herald. “Perhaps this is a wake-up call that updating this system should be a priority.”

The damage happened when the subcontractor, Florida Communication Concepts, was working on a directional boring project, which involves installing underground utilities such as pipe, conduit or cables in a relatively shallow underground path. The Wellington-based subcontractor was working without a city permit, and was issued a Notice to Appear in Broward Court for doing work without one.

Water started flowing at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, but a boil advisory remains in place and will continue until at least Sunday, Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Ben Sorenson said. Eighty-nine sites throughout the city must pass two rounds of testing before the notice is lifted.

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Crews work on fixing the broken pipeline that left 220,000 people without running water in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Thursday, July 18, 2019. Charlie Ortega Guifarro cguifarro@miamiherald.com

On Friday, residents were still looking for ways to secure water.

“The hardest thing for me has been to remember not to brush my teeth with it or wash the dishes,” said Tracy Fields, 58.

Fields, who lives in the South Middle River neighborhood of Fort Lauderdale, drove through Mills Pond Park, where city officials were handing out 24-packs of bottled water.

The water distribution locations will remain open until 8 p.m. Saturday at Beach Community Center, 3351 NE 33rd Ave., Mills Point Park, 2201 NW Ninth Ave., and Riverland Park, 950 SW 27th Ave.

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City of Fort Lauderdale employee Willie Brown helps distribute packs of water bottles to the city’s residents at a water distribution center in Riverland Park in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Thursday, July 18, 2019. Charlie Ortega Guifarro cguifarro@miamiherald.com

It was a challenge for businesses as well.

The Galleria mall shut down, and Las Olas restaurants closed by midday.

For The Cheesecake Factory, which is open every day of the year except for Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, closing meant a loss of over $20,000, General Manager Jeffrey Boswell said.

Boswell sent all employees home and closed for the day on Thursday when the city predicted a 24-hour water outage.

“Everything that it takes to run a restaurant, you definitely need water,” Boswell said. “Especially if there was something wrong with the water, we didn’t want to risk that, so we decided to just shut the doors.”

Other restaurants had employees stick around in the hopes that water would be restored, allowing them to reopen after the city made a temporary fix on the damaged pipe. Big City Tavern never closed entirely, keeping its bar open even when the tap was off, reopening for dinner at 5 p.m.

“It was actually probably better for us since some restaurants are closed, day and night,” General Manager Jason Steele said. The evening rush made up for lost lunch business, he added.

Red Door Hibachi also experienced a late-night rush, opening from 4 p.m. to midnight.

“We were very lucky,” General Manager Carlos Giordano said. “It was very successful and we were very busy.”

On Friday, restaurants served customers bottled water and used boiled water to wash their dishes.

Sorenson said because of the far-reaching effects of the subcontractor’s mistake, the city opened an investigation into the permitting process and the people responsible for the work.

“It’s my expectation that we’re going to hold those who are responsible fully accountable,” he said. “It’s just still in its infancy stages.”

FPL spokesman Matt Eissey said the utility is aware of the situation and is “investigating the incident and working with the city to respond.” FPL directed further questions to the city of Fort Lauderdale, whose spokesman cited the “active investigation” and declined to comment on the incident in detail.

In March, about 33,000 FPL customers experienced a partial blackout after a substation exploded in Fort Lauderdale. The blackout forced evacuation of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts during the opening night of “Dear Evan Hansen.”

Trantalis said the city has a long-term franchise agreement with FPL, which allows them to conduct work throughout the city without attaining a new permit for each project. He said he’s heard “horror stories” from other smaller cities and towns that detail the issues that often come with FPL subcontractors.

“I’m getting texts from people all over the county with horror stories about FPL subcontractors,” he said. “They continue to be disrespectful of the infrastructure and cause water problems throughout the county. We aren’t the first to suffer.”

The subcontractor, Florida Communication Concepts, was created just this past March, and is operated out of a residential address by Wellington couple Timothy and Christine Hicks, according to the state Division of Corporations’ online database.

The company has no complaints against it with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

However, it doesn’t have its own contractor’s license but works under another person’s license called a qualifier. The qualifier, Al Valdes, did have one complaint from 2006 for working without a license, according to the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The case was dismissed because of a lack of sufficient evidence.

Valdes is contracted to work with other electrical companies, like Florida-based Down South Solutions and Custom Home Solutions.

Neither Valdes nor Timothy Hicks, the president of the company, responded to requests for comment Friday.

The Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities such as FPL, said it will closely monitor costs recovered by utilities to ensure payment for the incident isn’t passed on to customers.

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Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.
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