FPL: Expect 4.1 million customers to lose power — maybe for weeks — from Irma

Florida Power & Light sent a shockingly clear message to its 5 million customers Friday: Hurricane Irma will cripple the power grid, snap concrete poles, flood underground substations, and cause not days — but weeks — of outages, as the state’s largest electricity provider attempts to rebuild a system in a landscape of widespread destruction.

“I want to be very clear about the level of damage that’s possible with a storm of this magnitude,” Eric Silagy, FPL president and CEO, said during a press conference at the company’s emergency operations center in Riviera Beach on Friday. “With these kinds of winds, we’re not looking for restoration necessarily in some parts of our territory, we will be looking at having to rebuild it.”

The company expects that at least 4.1 million of its 9 million customers will lose power from the storm, and it could take days for roads to clear before it’s safe to start rebuilding, Silagy said.

“We will work 24/7 to get the lights back on,” he said, adding: “This is a major storm. It’s going to take time.”

Since Hurricane Wilma left many of its customers without power for as long as two weeks in 2005, FPL has invested $3 billion in infrastructure hardening. But the strength and size of Irma could weaken even those best efforts.

Concrete and metal poles that replaced weaker wooden ones are expected to come down. Underground substations and power lines — 40 percent of the system — may be a sanctuary from fierce wind but may be vulnerable to flooding. They will be proactively shut down to avoid damage until the water subsides.

And a decade of vegetation that Mother Nature has not cleared in many parts of the state could become flying debris that will rip down “thousands of miles of power lines” and complicate repair efforts from coast to coast, Silagy said.

Restoration efforts will begin “as soon as the winds subside,” below 35 mph, when it’s safe to put buckets back in the air. The company’s smart meters will alert workers to substations that are safe to turn back on, and the natural gas generating power plants will run during the storm if winds subside.

The company’s two nuclear power plants, at Turkey Point and St. Lucie, will be out of commission a day before 100 mph winds arrive and for the duration of the storm, as required by federal nuclear regulations.

“We will shut those plants down 24 hours before the onset of forecast winds hitting category 1 and restore after the winds have passed and storm has cleared,” he said. But he is confident the nuclear plants will withstand the ferocious storm.

“Turkey Point, located by Homestead, actually had a direct hit by Hurricane Andrew and suffered no damage,” he said. “It was open and ready to operate long before the roads were cleared.”

He emphasized that the company plans to continue to operate its plants during the storm, as long as it is safe, and get it back up as soon as possible.

“We will not take any chances,” he said. “Safety is our No. 1 priority and it should be all of your priority as well. We can rebuild anything when it comes down to power facilities. ... You can’t rebuild someone’s life.”

Relying on lessons learned from Super Storm Sandy in the northeast, they have equipped underground substations with flood monitors and positioned smart meters in homes to allow them to remotely shut down transformers to protect from surges and explosions.

By midnight Friday, the company expects to have 13,500 crew members from Florida and dozens of other states — including California, Wisconsin and the Great Lakes — positioned at 22 pre-storm staging sites who will be ready to work on restoration as soon as it is safe to do so.

Despite the advancements, Silagy was sanguine about how long it will take to rebuild a massive system humbled by a monster storm.

“I can’t tell you how long flood waters will stay in place,” he said, refraining from predicting whether the repair efforts will take weeks or months. “It’s not going to be a one- or two-day outage. It may stretch into weeks.”