'We are in uncharted waters': FPL executives talk hurricane preparation amid a global pandemic
ST. LUCIE COUNTY — As the rumblings of hurricane season grow louder, an unprecedented challenge could be on the horizon for Florida Power & Light Co., the power company that serves most of the Treasure Coast and state.
What is normally the routine procedure of hurricane preparation now has an added obstacle for the Florida-based utility's employees, customers and vendors: the global coronavirus pandemic.
"We understand the importance of having electricity. But I also want to be honest with everybody and our customers: We are in uncharted waters," Eric Silagy, president and chief executive officer of FPL, told the crowd Wednesday at the company's staging event at the St. Lucie County Fairgrounds.
The utility organized the staging event to educate the public on how it plans to juggle both the pandemic and their normal storm response should a major hurricane make landfall in Florida, said Bill Orlove, FPL's manager of public relations.
"What nobody has ever planned for is a major hurricane and a pandemic," Silagy said. "We are preparing for the worst and keeping our fingers crossed for the best."
The "mini-restoration city" at the fairground included air-conditioned tents where vendors and FPL linemen will be able to receive thermal temperature checks and rapid COVID-19 testing on a storm response site. All told, test results are returned in roughly 15 minutes, Orlove said.
The utility has invested "billions of dollars" in storm-hardening, which includes the installation of concrete utility poles, Silagy said. They also have 100 staging sites selected throughout Florida to be opened at-the-ready pending the arrival of a major storm, according to FPL.
A main goal of FPL is to minimize the movement of crews by keeping storm response teams assigned to the same work areas and reducing crowd sizes, according to a list of the utility's plans provided by Orlove.
Because of this, Silagy predicts a potentially slower response time in FPL's power restoration when electricity goes out, he said.
"Having less people will challenge us. Normally during a hurricane, we’ll have sites that have thousands of people. We’re not going to have the luxury to do that," Silagy said. "And unfortunately, it’s going to lead to less productivity."
"I’m not sure we’re going to get the same level of response from across the country because the situation going on in their own state," he said. "That will pose a challenge to get the lights up as quickly as we have in the past."
The list of FPL's hurricane-pandemic goals also includes providing personal protective equipment, including face masks, to all employees, Orlove said. The utility also plans to "extensively clean" and sanitize storm staging sites and command centers to protect vendors and employees.
"I will not sacrifice safety," Silagy said. "I am not going to compromise the safety of our customers, of our vendors, and of the men and women who heed the call and respond."
Throughout the display of "micro-sites" Wednesday, FPL flexed their technological muscles with drone displays, a mobile community response vehicle and a handful of bucket trucks retrofitted to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Michael Dorr, a senior drone pilot with FPL who provided aerial surveillance during Hurricane Michael, said the team is expecting a big change in how they operate this year to adhere to social distancing methods.
"When you come back to the staging site and you’re sleeping in a trailer with 12 other people, everybody is elbow-to-elbow," Dorr said, speaking of his past response to Hurricane Michael. "And now we’ll all be spaced out."
But Dorr, who has worked with the utility for a year, said the adjustment should be manageable.
"From my experience it’s doable," Dorr said. "We come out here and practice that to get used to this new normal."
Here's a list of FPL's full plan for storm restoration amid the COVID-19 pandemic:
- Provide personal protective equipment, including face masks.
- Provide sanitizing materials to crews, like hand sanitizer, disinfectant spray and wipes
- Extensively clean and sanitize staging sites and command centers to protect storm response teams
- Adjust the layout of staging sites to adhere to social distancing and add smaller staging sites with less people and equipment (micro-staging sites)
- Administer screening and temperature checks at all staging sites and corporate facilities, as well as testing employees
- Minimize the movement of crews, and keep the same crews assigned to the same work areas when possible
- Assign back-up staff, including for the control center, which coordinates grid operations
- Affix social distancing decals to trucks to help keep crews safe
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Max Chesnes is a TCPalm breaking news reporter for Indian River County. You can keep up with Max on Twitter @MaxChesnes, email him at email@example.com and give him a call at 772-978-2224.
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