Monday, September 18, 2017

Hurricanes and the City of Lake Worth: Why having our own Electric Utility is significant and very important.

Please pardon me if you’ve already read this blog post, first posted after Hurricane Matthew last year and several times since. But I’ve received several requests from my long-time readers to remind new or recently new residents about some hurricanes that may or may not sound familiar to you: Frances, Jeanne, and Wilma.

The shortest length of time I was without power was 10 days, and when power was restored it was flickering with brown-outs for many more days afterwards. Each minute with power seemed like a blessing.

I’m still having a hard time believing my power came back on last Friday after going out the Sunday prior due to Hurricane Irma. I am very grateful and very relieved. For many of you — what you’re about to read is unbelievable — but it’s not. It actually happened to me and many other residents of this City.

This blog post isn’t a look back for long-time residents of this City. For those who were here at the time, no words are necessary. But for new residents of this City, what you’ll read about below is what happens when infrastructure, like our Electric Utility, was allowed to fall apart years ago and the consequences of those terrible decisions that “came to roost” starting in 2004.

Were you here last year for Hurricane Matthew? You’ll learn why I prepared to go without electric for weeks because of that storm. Why? The short answer is because of past hurricanes that actually happened to me and many others as well.

But a lot has changed in this City since those terrible storms back in 2004/2005. And Hurricane Matthew is proof of that. All the hard work done to harden the City’s electric distribution system has paid off and was done using money from where? Money from a bond. That’s right. A bond (you’ll read more about that below).

In order to know where we’re going as a City you need to know where we’ve been. For many of us Hurricane Matthew brought back a lot of terrible memories. Reading about Lake Worth’s Electric Utility during hurricanes Francis, Jeanne, and Wilma may seem like mundane history now but that’s not the case. It’s very important you know these things. Very important.

Many of you know I am not a native Floridian. I came here in 1989 after having lived for 28 years in Michigan. Other than both states sharing the common element of being peninsulas there are few similarities. There is a long list of differences. One concern I had when relocating here was Florida was known as a place where hurricanes can make landfall. A frightening prospect.

Upon arrival here in Fall of 1989 I quickly became acquainted with the parade of storms shared in reports by local news lore. South Florida is prone to threats from storms that form off the coast of Africa, referred to as Cape Verde storms. These storms can evolve into their own, self-sustaining hurricanes and roll across the Atlantic Ocean. Most of these storms, while they may be large and pack high winds, turn north and are referred to as “fish storms”. Marine traffic is warned and alter their course accordingly. No harm done. This time.

It’s a roll of the dice whether storms will be fish storms or make landfall. In 1979 Hurricane David was the last storm to hit the area prior to my move to Florida. Hurricane David was a significant storm and it skirted the east coast of Florida in a similar way that Hurricane Matthew did. However, David did not have nearly the powerful punch of Matthew.

Here are some of the near misses I recall as it relates to Palm Beach County (PBC): Of course, there’s Hurricane Andrew back in 1992. That Category 5 storm had its sights set on PBC but plowed through the southern part of Dade County instead with disastrous results. Following that storm was the re-writing of building codes and wind-impact standards now required for new construction and window/door replacement.

Between 1992 and 2004 we had near misses and threats but really no major impacts from hurricanes in Southeast Florida. That’s not to say other areas didn’t experience landfalls during that time, but PBC was spared.

In Lake Worth we have our own electric utility which makes our experience different than surrounding municipalities and unincorporated (or suburban) PBC that use FPL. Whether through indifference, conflicting priorities, or lack of funds the Lake Worth Electric Utility degraded over time. Once it was something Lake Worth residents could rely on and it was a selling point to live here. The City gained the reputation for reliable, reasonable electric delivery service. It was a source of civic pride. “Was” is the key word.

All those false notions and fanciful memories about our Electric Utility were laid bare after hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004 (exactly two weeks apart), and then Wilma in 2005. Things were already falling apart at the utility before these storms. We had what were referred to as “palm frond” or “small dead animal” excuses the City would use for virtually inexplicable outages, some occurring during clear weather, in the middle of the day. A change of administrations and a focus on hardening of our electric distribution system over the past five years is really what made Hurricane Matthew seem only like a nuisance to so many.

My house lost power in all three storms of 2004 and 2005, early in each storm. The shortest length of time until the power came back on was 10 days. That was after Francis. Those that were here remember Francis being a lengthy, slow-moving storm that seemed like it would never go away. When it did we endured hot and humid summer nights with the windows open and hearing newly purchased generators running all night long. Sleep was nearly impossible.

The cycle was repeated only two weeks later with Hurricane Jeanne, which followed almost the same landfall spot as Francis, but was stronger and faster moving. Neighbors and myself then endured another two weeks without power, while other communities and areas around us were being turned back on by FPL. The contrast was vividly apparent.

The next year Wilma made a late October appearance and surprised everyone (especially the forecasters) with its strength as it made its way west to east across the state. Its fast speed contributed to an increase in wind speed. It was Wilma when we experienced the passage of the “eye” only to learn that what came after the eye was worse than the conditions which preceded it. The aftermath of that storm on my property was much more severe than the other storms. My electric meter and connection to the house from the pole was ripped away requiring a trip to an Orlando Home Depot for parts (that was the nearest store that had storm recovery materials and equipment).

The College Park neighborhood lights came on about 2 weeks after Wilma. My property remained dark for about five more days until the work could be completed and inspected by the City.

That’s when I found out how the City, and its utility customers, were taken to the proverbial cleaners by out-of-town contractors assigned to restore power to residences and businesses who suffered damage and required a new meter. At 10:30 p.m. a large white truck showed up at my address and two workers got out. They met me in the yard and I directed them to the meter location. They worked about 20 minutes connecting the wire feed to the house and then the new meter box.

It turns out these particular two were from Ohio and were on an open-ended contract to restore power. For the past three weeks they were working double eight-hour shifts and getting triple-overtime. I asked them how they decided which house or business they went to next. They said they went by a master list and it was based on the order in which properties became ready for meter installation after a successful inspection.

Now that the wiring work was done they had to go back to the main dispatch and get an electric meter. They didn’t have one on their very large truck. Convenient, huh? They were gone about 45 minutes (remember, triple-overtime pay) and then returned to install the electric meter. Success! I finally had power like the rest of my neighbors.

It dawned on me the City wasn’t over-seeing these contractors at all. Imagine the same process for every installation: wiring, going back to HQ, returning with a meter and then off to the next property on the list which could be anywhere in the City. They could have planned an installation in the extreme northeast corner of the City and then travel to the extreme southwest corner of the City and repeat the process. All the time on triple overtime.

Nothing like this happened during Hurricane Matthew. Granted, we were spared the brunt of that Category 4 storm spinning off of our shores, and very few (at most 200) went without power for a short period of time. As I wrote this last year on October 9th, two days after the storm, the Town of Palm Beach reported that 103 properties are still without power on the island. If I’m not mistaken Lake Worth had everybody back on line by then. FPL, at the peak of the storm, had 60,000+ without power in PBC. That number is nearly double the entire population of Lake Worth.

The point is this is more evidence the City of Lake Worth has turned a corner. Through the diligent hardening of the electrical distribution system over the past five years we all have noticed fewer interruptions in service. The contrast between then and now couldn’t be more stark. This is a clear example, when it comes to improving infrastructure, the best way to ensure that it actually happens is through a specific bond issue that funds those improvements.

The hardening of the City’s electric distribution system was done by the Commission through the auspices of the electric and water utility funds. These bond funds did not require the vote of the electorate as this was not a general obligation bond.

Last November was the Neighborhood Road Bond referendum. That was an opportunity, going forward, to improve our road network as we did with our electric and water utilities. The bond last year passed “overwhelmingly”, by 69% of the voters. In order to keep on making Lake Worth a more attractive and safe place to live, the bond was the only answer.

Another real pathway to continued success is the voting booth. Elections in this City are not trivial. They have consequences long after Election Day. That’s why, if you’re a new resident of the New City of Lake Worth, it’s important to get involved and stay involved in whatever way you can.