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Utilities subcommittee weighs post-disaster aid to homeowners

“There are things we can do to make the process work even better.”

State government should consider providing aid to Floridians whose homes are damaged during hurricanes, the chairman of the House Energy & Utilities Subcommittee said Wednesday.

Ocala Republican Rep. Charlie Stone cited electric utilities’ post-disaster loan programs as a possible model.

These loans can help homeowners cover their share of reconnection costs — utilities’ responsibility ends at the conduits connecting the grid to individual homes.

“Maybe the state needs to play a part in that as well. Like provide some state funds,” Stone said following testimony by larger and smaller power providers.

He also wants to look into whether the state does enough to provide emergency services, including law enforcement and fire-rescue staff, during weather emergencies.

“We need to make sure we have enough employees in a general area,” Stone said.

He praised former Gov. Rick Scott for sending the National Guard to the Hurricane Michael disaster zone.

“There are things we can do to make the process work even better,” he said.

The hearing featured rundowns on disaster planning and response from the Public Service Commission and executives of Gulf Power, Duke Energy, Florida Public Utilities, the Florida Municipal Electric Association, and the Florida Electric Cooperatives Association.

Details of their presentations are available on the Florida House website.

All had participated in programs to harden their grids against big storms under a PSC mandate imposed following the 2004-05 storm season.

It still proved impossible to completely ward off extensive power losses. According to PSC engineering director Tom Ballinger, 11 counties experienced outages exceeding 80 percent of customers, and in four counties every customer lost power.

Fixing that required weeks of effort by nearly 20,000 workers, both Florida-based and recruited through corporate connections or interstate mutual aid agreements, who sometimes rebuilt entire portions of the grid.

Gulf Power had reconnected 99 percent of customers whose homes weren’t too badly damaged to accept power within 13 days. For Florida Public Utilities, it took three weeks.

The hearing underscored a resources gap between larger utilities and the smaller operators. Gulf Power, for example, mobilized some 8,000 crew members post-Michael. The public power group marshaled 600, although for a smaller customer base.

The association nevertheless reconnected its Blountstown customers, in the heart of the disaster zone, within 12 days.

“The smaller players are doing, I think, the best they can do under the circumstances,” Stone said. “They obviously need more resources. The only way they are going have revenue is from their customer base. If you try to build up those revenue streams, you’re penalizing the ratepayers. It’s a tough issue for the smaller ones.”

There’s only so much that power providers — and state regulators — can do against 155 mph winds and up to 14 feet of storm surge.

For example, underground transmission equipment tends to hold up well during hurricanes — but not against storm surge that can drown the equipment in seawater, or when exposed by uprooted trees.

A Duke Energy executive showed committee members pictures of aboveground components of buried transmission lines knocked clean off their massive concrete foundations.

“You’re never going to be 100 percent prepared,” Stone said. “But each and ever incident creates more opportunity for Florida to become more prepared. More data points, more information about how we can do better. We can raise the bar.”

Meanwhile, given the number who lost power, “it’s a miracle we got them restored as fast as we did,” he said.

Written By

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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