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Hurrican Irma, Miami

Florida Electrical Industry Credits Planning as Focus Shifts to Recovery After Irma’s Fury

Sept. 22, 2017
Storm-seasoned electrical distributors count on preparedness plans to weather Florida hurricane.

Electrical distributors and reps in Florida watched Hurricane Irma’s path through the Atlantic and the Caribbean with images of Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey fresh in mind. As Irma strengthened to a Category 5 hurricane with winds of 185 mph and destroyed homes and buildings in the islands, meteorologists predicted Irma would make a turn north around Cuba and move into Florida.

Initial projections had the storm following the state’s Atlantic coast. Distributors on Florida’s eastern side prepared for the worst and those on the Gulf coast remained wary – Irma was the largest hurricane ever tracked in the Atlantic and would have hurricane-force winds spanning the peninsula on both sides. As Irma reached the turning point forecasts quickly shifted. It became clear that the storm would travel up the Gulf coast. Fortunately Irma also weakened to a Category 3 storm as it reached Florida, where it devastated parts of the Florida Keys and then came ashore at Marco Island and proceeded north as a Category 2 storm.

Distributors Electrical Marketing reached on both coasts reported similar stories – no substantial damage to their facilities and a keen awareness that it could have been otherwise.

“We have a tried and true plan for emergencies of this nature and feel we learn more and are constantly crafting a new plan once we see changes that could benefit us from experiences,” said Derrick Hoskins, president of K&M Electric Supply, based in Riviera Beach with half a dozen locations in the Miami area on Florida’s Atlantic coast. “The team at K&M really pulled together and worked to help the community when they were in need. We take our responsibility serious that we play a crucial part of rebuilding the infrastructure once a storm has passed, it is of paramount importance we are available before and after the storm for our customers and community. I am impressed by our team, they did a fantastic job prepping for the storm, reporting back to work afterwards, and making sure we were available when the need was great, even in the face of them having items that needed to be tended to personally.”

On the Gulf side, George Adams Jr., president of Electric Supply Inc., based in Tampa, said many years of experience with hurricanes have taught the company not to be complacent. “We thought we would be OK, however, we understand fully that in the science of hurricane projections there are so many variables that it can be difficult to get the forecast right. We knew it could turn on a dime.

“For some of us who had not made plans to evacuate there was the realization that we couldn’t because the hotels were full, there was a shortage of gas and the interstates being backed up,” Adams said. “Fortunately for the people in Tampa Bay area, at least for 99-point-something percent, it wasn’t nearly as bad as we thought it was going to be. But we know that us getting off easily was someone else’s worst nightmare.”

Florida electrical distributors have detailed emergency preparedness plans for hurricanes. When Electric Supply established its utility products operation in the mid-1990s it hired a retired official from Tampa Electric Co. to design an emergency preparedness plan, something Adams expected would take a few months. The employee stayed ten years, eventually running the operation; the preparedness plan ran to more than 30 pages and is still updated every year, Adams said.

Electric Supply’s preparations included taking conduit off the racks in its yard and laying them down where they wouldn’t blow over or become airborne missiles in the hurricane winds. They topped off fuel tanks in all their generators and trucks, implemented plans for doing business after the storm if credit-card processing systems went down, and made sure their satellite phones were charged and in the right hands, Adams said. On the customer side the company coordinated with utilities to make sure they were stocked on materials that would be needed quickly after the storm, including transformers, pole-line hardware, cable and anything else for the above-ground grid.

In Florida hurricane preparations actually happen over many years. After a hurricane in 2005 tore the roof off K&M Electric Supply’s main branch, Hoskins said the rebuilding included hurricane-strength bay doors. He had a plan for sheltering his family in K&M’s main branch where a safe room that houses the company’s servers is rated to withstand winds of 350 mph, but when Irma shifted course that wasn’t necessary.

“We learned years ago not to run from them. There’s no way to evacuate the entire state,” Hoskins said, adding that the long period of recovery is often as difficult as the storm itself. “Everybody forgets – we call it ‘hurricane amnesia’ – they forget about the aftermath. It’s one thing to hunker down and be safe, but then you have this life that’s extremely inconvenient afterward.”

Jamey Yore, principal of Coresential, an electrical rep agency based in Orlando, told EM by e-mail that he expects the state’s recovery to take some time. “Interesting how there are pre storm concerns, during the storm concerns and post storm concerns,” he wrote. “Pre storm you are trying to make sure everyone has evacuated and is in a location capable of withstanding the storm. During this storm I learned or maybe was reminded of the tornado potential if you are located on the northeast side of the storm, which I was, being located in Orlando. Post storm. Flooding. They are advising that it could take up to 2 weeks for the extra water in our retention ponds, fields, lakes and streams to make its way out of our county.”

As the Florida electrical industry begins the process of restoring power and rebuilding, it’s with a renewed awareness that the threat of hurricanes never really ends.

“Now we look at Maria and it’s hard to fathom what Puerto Rico is going through, not to mention what the Virgin Islands have been through,” Adams said. “And we’ve got two-and-a-half months left of hurricane season.”