Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry doesn’t make every JEA Board meeting. But he made the one after Hurricane Matthew on Tuesday.
Curry’s attendance, once FloridaPolitics.com reported it last week, has been a matter of some speculation, especially since JEA CEO Paul McElroy said last week he was out of town during Hurricane Matthew, as JEA imposed an unreachable power restoration deadline upon itself, and as power failures and mechanical issues resulted in 7 million gallons of sewage escaping the sewerage system, spilling into streets, rivers, retention ponds, and everywhere else flowing tributaries of semi-solid waste could find.
Ahead of the meeting, Curry engaged in relaxed banter with board members, before he sat down next to board chair and key political supporter Tom Petway.
Those expecting an inquisition were to be disappointed, as Curry’s remarks were brief and anodyne.
Curry noted Petway invited him to the meeting to discuss the “historic event in our city.”
“This organization, there was a lot of hard work done; a lot of good things done,” Curry said.
“Certainly there are things that could be done better,” Curry added, saying he was “grateful” that Tuesday’s meeting would discuss ways to improve.
And Curry soon after departed on a Chamber trip to Pittsburgh.
From there, the board soon enough went into discussion of the storm itself, including the planning ahead of time, the restoration and impact, restoration, and future mitigation.
CEO Paul McElroy thanked the mayor for the “leadership he presented throughout the event,” and council members for their more localized efforts.
As well, said McElroy, “the governor showed extraordinary leadership,” ranging from offering mutual aid crews to FDEP help with sewage system issues.
Petway chimed in, saying “it’s nothing short of a masterpiece to watch this organization doing its thing during an emergency.”
Petway added that, on a leadership level, “incident commanders” were on top of the effort from beginning to end.
From there, McElroy discussed room for improvement, specifically related to customer relations and “setting expectations” and the “sewer collection system,” before discussing the planning and preparation.
Planning for the storm, McElroy said, began in 2003 with a fully sourced Emergency Preparedness team, which accords with the guidelines of the National Incident Management Structure, and has a fully developed organizational matrix.
“I am deemed to be the No. 1 emergency commander, the person in the chair,” said McElroy, but the structure requires “backup and rotation” when he is not in the chair … as he was not from Thursday until late on Sunday.
Key to JEA efforts: 1,000 mutual aid agreements are in place, regarding restoration efforts during and after a storm such as this.
Decisions were made as early as the Wednesday before the storm to get crews into Jacksonville — the first ones from Georgia, and reinforcements from elsewhere as available.
One board member wondered if it would have been wise to have more mutual aid crews available ahead of the storm, with the caveat that if the storm had veered east, they might not have been needed.
McElroy said, once requested, “they’re on the clock for two days.”
McElroy noted that JEA, through a third party, ran a simulation before hurricane season.
The simulation established that JEA was “well-prepared for a disaster.”
McElroy then turned to discussion of the “100-year storm” itself, which brought with it impacts, like employees being required to “shelter in place” for 12 hours, leaving them unable to react to the sewer failures as movement was prohibited.
“Our response system could have been better,” McElroy said, regarding the dozens of sewage spills, seeps, and sloshes experienced in Duval County because of the storm.
“Sanitary overflows” nettled board member Husein Cumber, who noted he got calls and emails from friends who were concerned.
“It became a lot of the community talk,” Cumber said, “because people didn’t know what [sanitary overflows] meant.”
“People are always going to assume the worst when they hear sanitary overflow,” Cumber said, advising stronger communications efforts to explain what that term means.
Wind speeds and gusts of up to 99 mph presented other problems, but JEA was in the field by 6 a.m. Saturday, as winds died down.
“As soon as we were ready to go to work and the weather allowed us, our fleet and mutual aid fleets,” said McElroy, were “in the field.”
The priorities for electrical restoration were schools, then commercial corridors, then residential, which McElroy said “took a number of days.”
“Schools are very important in terms of restoration,” noted McElroy, as they are in “population centers.”
“In picking up schools, we picked up most commercial and retail,” said McElroy, offering the “biggest bang for the activity.”
Regarding damage, most of the electrical damage was in distribution; on sewage systems, collection.
“This was the largest mobilization of electrical workers in JEA history,” said McElroy, by a “factor of two.”
The 400 mutual aid workers, unavailable in 2004 during the last storm-related outage, were housed at a base camp at the Morocco Shrine.
And they were needed: 250,000 customers, or 55 percent, were out of power at the peak of outages.
By Sunday and Monday, additional mutual aid crews were available.
“We did make a stated goal of substantial completion by end of day Monday,” McElroy said, adding that “in hindsight, we shouldn’t have made that call.”
McElroy did spotlight positives:
Unlike in 2004’s Hurricane Frances, customers were able to reach out to the expanded call center with 100 employees on call at all times; even if it didn’t affect recovery speeds, it at least allowed customers to vent.
Average time to answer a call was 57 seconds.
Another positive: “fairly active” social media activity, “200,000 hits” on the outage center information page, and 362,123 hits to the outage map.
And another positive: 65 of the 67 sites where the sewage system failed have been restored to their pre-storm condition.
McElroy noted outage restoration and call center performance showed improvement compared to 2004, and compared favorably with other state and national restoration efforts from similar storms.
McElroy estimates $35 million in damages, which will be recovered over the next year or two, via $19.9 million from FEMA, and the rest from state reimbursement and insurance.
Regarding “lessons learned,” McElroy noted the importance of “post-incident review” to foment “process improvement.”
“We can probably do better in improving our initial assessment process … communication and customer expectations … [and] the timing of the mobilization and the process of scaling up.”
That said, “the performance was truly outstanding for the teams that put it together,” McElroy opined.
There will, among other action steps, be a review of backup generation at sewage systems, in coordination with the FDEP. A significant amount of the sewage failures were related to failures of backup generators, which do not get up to full power instantly, creating room for failure.
McElroy also noted the governor’s interest in a statewide improvement of the electric grid.
While the JEA team “made some mistakes,” McElroy lauded them for working “long and hard and smart.”
“We were connected at all times,” McElroy said; even at his daughter’s wedding, the CEO noted he participated in EOC calls and “was responsible for any decision made in the storm.”
Board members had their say.
Discussed: underground versus overhead hardware.
Underground hardware tends to be in newer developments; overhead infrastructure tends to be in older neighborhoods.
Petway noted there are concerns with the “tree canopy” as well. As was the case in 2004, moves to prune trees in older neighborhoods were resisted by people who lived there who liked their trees.
Ed Burr, meanwhile, wanted an overt “commitment to improvement … to both owning the mistakes and correcting it,” especially related to “major environmental spills” from the sewage system failures and the botched systemwide restoration timeline.
“I think we can do better than this, and I think we can expect better than this,” Burr said.
Board member Warren Jones noted he was called by some elected officials who wanted their power on sooner, proving there was no favoritism for the most privileged members of Jacksonville society.
Jones also noted power outage issues in Mandarin, compared to more disadvantaged areas of town, prove the utility was not showing bias based on socioeconomic class.
And Petway, regarding McElroy leaving town for the wedding, joked that “your daughter only gets married for the first time one time,” and that McElroy had cleared the travel decision with Petway before going.
With the post-hurricane workshop wrapped up, the board went into its regular meeting.
Among the subjects discussed: preparing for December’s annual meeting with credit ratings agencies, for which one of the selling points will be the “strength of the management team.”
Debt reduction continues, with what CFO Melissa Dykes called a “very conservative approach to the portfolio of debt,” allowing “stable liquidity,” which should reassure the same ratings agencies that gave JEA a AAA rating this year.
Dykes noted that “unplanned customer outages significantly exceeded the goal” for the last fiscal year, as did “sanitary system overflows,” in her monthly operation report, which also reviewed performance for the fiscal year ending Oct. 1.
In happier news, JEA is in the first quartile of residential customer satisfaction, with a record score by that relevant metric.
Overall, in terms of financial results and cost metrics, JEA is performing well.
Board members also approved a resolution to urge the city council to reduce meeting obligations from monthly to six times a year, which is the case with the boards of other independent authorities in Duval County.
“Good governance,” said board member Jones, “solves a lot of problems.”
Jones will be leaving the board soon, as he was elected to the school board and charter doesn’t permit him to fulfill both functions.