Duke Energy not only missed its deadlines for restoring power in Seminole and Orange counties and elsewhere but glitches in its information system provided little and often wrong information to customers, leading its lobbyist to apologize and promise better to Seminole’s lawmakers Tuesday morning.
Duke, once faced with 1.3 million customers without power following Hurricane Irma, is down to 56,000 state-wide.
But that includes 7,900 homes and businesses in Seminole and 10,500 in Orange after the North Carolina-based utility had promised full service by Sunday night, and then Monday night.
Adding to that woe were information technology system glitches that both prevented Duke from being able to keep track of who was calling in outages, and often falsely informed callers that their electricity was on when it wasn’t, or off when it was on, or advised them that no one had previously reported the outage, when the call was potentially one of scores the company had received from a given neighborhood.
And to the incredulity to some, the company was never able to tell anyone when to expect service restoration.
Tuesday, state Reps. Bob Cortes of Altamonte Springs, Jason Brodeur of Sanford, Scott Plakon of Longwood, and state Sen. David Simmons of Altamonte Springs brought Duke vice president for government affairs Chris Flack before their Seminole County Legislative Caucus meeting to demand answers and better performance, and received an apology and more promises.
“I’d like to start with an apology, with an apology to our customers,” Flack said. “In a time like this, information is important. Our customers want information. They want to know when the lights are coming back on. They want to know when they’re going to be able to get back to their daily lives. And we let them down.
“We’ve had some confusion. We’ve had some problems with our IT system, not to make excuses. We’ve not lived up to our expectations, we haven’t lived up to your expectations, we certainly haven’t lived up to our customers’ expectations,” Flack continued.
Lessons learned, moving forward, was his message.
And for that the four lawmakers, all Republicans, were eager to point out many of the lessons.
Brodeur suggested the company needs a better communications software that could actually pinpoint a caller’s location and give clear information about what was wrong, and perhaps how long the outage might last.
Plakon agreed that the company’s communications software seemed woefully inadequate, and he suggested the company needed to develop crowd-sourcing communications that could help them track problems through residents’ reports, especially when they might report critical problems, like people with special medical needs without power.
“A guy I know who owns a software company locally is incredulous that the software system could break down with this critical need that affects the health and safety of Floridians,” Plakon said. “The question is, what happened?”
Flack said he did not know, but agreed it needed to be improved, saying, “That’s on us.”
Cortes urged Duke to become more sophisticated in getting its messages out via social media, and to monitor social media reports about power.
Simmons focused on the power infrastructure, and for a comprehensive plan in advance.
“Please don’t go away with the thought that we’re looking for how fast you’re going to get service back on as a goal. Our goal is you won’t have the outages that you had. That way you don’t have to deal with how quickly you’re going to turn it back on,” Simmons said.
“As we move forward with 21 million citizens of this state, it’s not good enough to just have mass outages and hopefully get it back up to working. It’s incredibly important to put together a plan, and it’s going to be hardening of infrastructure, so you won’t have these numbers.”
Flack said the company already has invested “several hundred million dollars hardening our system” and will be looking closely at what failed within that system, and learn better approaches.
All of that came with a background of appreciation for all the restoration work that has been done by Duke, other power companies, and thousands of linemen, many of whom coming in from out of state. Duke replaced 3,000 poles and dealt with more than 1,100 broken transformers, and replaced more than 1,000 miles of line, Flack said. About 1,000 of those poles, 325 of those transformers, and 325 miles of that line were in Seminole.
“Our focus right now is on restoration,” Flack said.
He promised full restoration by the end of Tuesday, except for specific, individual customers that might have unique problems at their properties.