Powering Strong Communities
Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Amy Zubaly Details How FMEA and Florida Public Power Utilities are Preparing for Hurricane Season


The following is a transcript of the April 22, 2024, episode of Public Power Now. Learn more about subscribing to Public Power Now at Publicpower.org/Podcasts. Some quotes may have been edited for clarity.

Paul Ciampoli
Welcome to the latest episode of Public Power Now. I'm Paul Ciampoli, APPA's news director. Our guest in this episode is Amy Zubaly, Executive Director of the Florida Municipal Electric Association. Amy is here to discuss the upcoming hurricane season and detail how FMEA and public power utilities in the state are preparing for the upcoming hurricane season, which is set to start in June. Amy, thanks for joining us.

Amy Zubaly
Thanks so much for having me, Paul.

Paul Ciampoli
Sure thing. Actually, thanks for returning to the podcast. We were just talking about how you've been on more than once before, so thanks for returning. We appreciate that.

Amy Zubaly
Absolutely. Thanks for having me back.

Paul Ciampoli
Sure thing. So Amy, I wanted to start our conversation by looking backwards and specifically the 2023 hurricane season and wanted to know if you could share any lessons learned in terms of how FMEA is preparing for this year's season?

Amy Zubaly
Yeah, absolutely. It's hard to believe that this is my eighth hurricane season as FMEA's Executive Director and the state mutual aid coordinator for our members. 2023 saw a strong category three Hurricane Idalia that made landfall along Florida's big bend region, which is a fairly rural area of Florida that hasn't really seen a lot of hurricanes, particularly of this magnitude, make landfall in probably 80 years or more.

Fortunately, the path of Idalia did not result in substantial impacts to Florida public power and we were able to get all of our power restored to our customers in less than 48 hours. And ultimately, we shifted about 300 of our public power resources -- line workers -- both from within our member utilities as well from out of state public power utilities that had come to respond to us -- we sent them over to Florida co ops and the Georgia investor-owned utilities that were much harder hit than we were.

But Idalia is a perfect example of why nobody needs to be complacent when it comes to hurricanes and preparedness, because it only takes one storm to cause severe damage and destruction and there's nowhere in the state of Florida that is protected from being the target. But Florida public power utilities prepare year round for the next season.

We make continuous upgrades that harden our systems and improve reliability, both of which make us more resilient year over year. And that said, every storm is different and every storm brings about different challenges and lessons learned. And from the past several hurricane seasons, we've learned how critical customer communication is before, during and after the storm.

We've learned that communication via social media is imperative, but to not solely rely on social media, and to use all forms of communication including traditional media, and making sure that all employees from across the utility are coordinated on messages. It's important to set clear expectations for our customers and to communicate on how power is restored following widespread outages, restoring critical infrastructure facilities and hospital and other critical care facilities first, and then restoring areas that will bring the most customers back up and moving down from there. And that communication needs to be done both before but even more importantly, after the storm hits.

We just need to constantly remind our customers of that. It is important to have continuous posts on social media accounts using photos of electrical damage and crews working to help because those provide situational awareness and it makes our customers understand the severity of the situation.

We let customers know where crews are working to restore power, we let them know that they're restoring power as quickly and as safely as possible as soon as the event begins, and that they'll continue to do so until conditions are no longer safe. But once conditions are...safe, they will resume restoration again as soon as those winds come down and it's safe to do so. I think safety resonates well with customers because safety is of the utmost importance. And so the best advice overall that FMEA can provide to our members is to prepare for the worst case situation and to hope for the best.

Paul Ciampoli
Thanks for that great overview, Amy. So just looking at this year I wanted to know if you could share with our listeners the steps that FMEA and the state's public power utilities are taking to prepare for the upcoming hurricane season.

Amy Zubaly
Sure, it's important to note that unfortunately, the early season predictions for the 2024 season indicate that this could be one of the most active seasons on record.

And that's basically because of two main factors. First, the El Nino effect that we've been experiencing throughout the winter and into the spring is expected to become a La Nina, apparently, which usually enhances storms substantially.

And then second, the Atlantic Ocean and along with the Gulf, the waters are record warm in most areas, which also enhances storms. And so the forecast right now predicts 23 storms, 11 of which will become hurricanes, and five of which will reach category three status or stronger. So we could be hit with five hurricanes or none.

But again, it only takes one storm. And there could be projections of a year of one major storm and if it hits your area, it can still cause widespread destruction and be an active season for that area. So I'd say our first major step ahead of each season is monitoring season predictions, and keeping our members informed with official information that we get from our partners at the state and national levels.

And that said, as I mentioned earlier, Florida public power utilities prepare year round for hurricanes, by hardening our systems and making our grid more resilient. In addition, our members follow pretty strict vegetation management policies to make sure that trees are trimmed back away from lines. And they also do regular pole inspections of their system, replacing any poles that are showing signs of failure from wood rot or other means.

We meet regularly with our local emergency operation centers to establish contacts and communicate areas for priority restoration. And we communicate preseason preparedness tips with our customers. FMEA also provides our members with a hurricane toolkit that has pre-written social media posts and graphics on preparedness and safety and restoration that our members can use for just some ready made quick posts that they can use. And in addition, our members have internal hurricane plans that they review on a regular basis.

And they conduct storm drills and exercises where they simulate different scenarios. And in addition, FMEA holds an annual hurricane and disaster forum -- that's coming up at the end of this month where we bring together our members to network and share ideas and best practices and lessons learned. And they hear presentations on hurricane forecasts and emergency management and hurricane restoration and ways to improve FEMA reimbursement processes through documentation and invoicing, mutual aid and other areas of operation that help our members restore power more quickly and efficiently. Because as quick as we can get power back on to our customers it helps bring a little bit of normalcy back into everybody's lives.

Paul Ciampoli

I wanted to pivot a little bit and kind of drill down into your specific role as it relates to hurricane preparation and mutual aid activities. Could you provide for our listeners some details on that in those areas?

Amy Zubaly

My role -- and FMEA's in general -- is really critical for our members during hurricanes. FMEA is the statewide mutual aid coordinator for our members. I'm actively involved in APPA's mutual aid committee, and I serve as the primary network coordinator for Florida public power. So that means that when one of my member utilities needs mutual aid, those requests come through FMEA.

And in turn, FMEA reaches out to other utilities in the state or in the country, depending on how large the request for mutual aid is to gather requested personnel and equipment to send to the utility in need. And conversely, if there's a utility in another state that needs to bring in extra resources from Florida to help with restoration efforts, those calls come through FMEA. And we in turn, gather available resources for our members to send those out of state, whether it be personnel or materials.

So when Florida's been impacted by a hurricane those requests for mutual aid really become substantial and in the last several years, FMEA has coordinated hundreds of line workers and other resources to come to our aid to help us restore power quickly and safely to our customers and I think that we've probably brought in resources from about 25 states over the years. So I'm forever grateful to the other members of the APPA mutual aid committee who repeatedly and immediately answer my call for help and reach out to utilities in their states and regions to gather those available resources.

But FMEA's role during a hurricane does not stop at mutual aid. FMEA also serves as the liaison between our members and the governor, the state emergency operations center, the state Division of Emergency Management and so many other state and federal entities. FMEA has a seat in the state's emergency operation center ESF 12, which is our emergency support function 12 that handles energy and fuels. And we have a physical presence there during hurricane activations and so that helps facilitate real time information sharing with our members and builds trust with our state partners.

And so if there's ever a need from one of our member utilities that the state EOC can assist with, those requests also come through FMEA, who coordinates them directly with our ESF at the EOC. So for example, sometimes depending on the severity of the storm, or the location, crew housing may be a problem. It may be in an area where there's not a lot of hotels nearby. And so the EOC has helped in the past by delivering cots to some of our members communities, so that we can set them up in some community centers, just areas that we can house crews when hotels aren't available.

In addition, the EOC produces power outage reports during hurricanes and other emergencies, in which the EOC is activated. And so during a hurricane, in those outage reports, as required by the state, are broken down by each power provider and by county, and they come out every three hours every day during an activation beginning at 6 am until the end of the day report at 9 pm. And so FMEA coordinates that outage reporting on behalf of our members.

So six times a day FMEA gathers all our members' outage numbers -- customer outage numbers  --from our members, and we input them into the state EOC system. And that process continues until all customers that can receive power are restored. So kind of a long answer, but our role during hurricanes is quite vast here at FMEA.

Paul Ciampoli
One of the things that we talked about with respect to preparation, I believe for last year's hurricane, is supply chain challenges. And unfortunately, that has not gone away since we last spoke. So especially in light of the fact that you pointed out that the forecasts for the hurricane season are rather ominous, do you have any concerns at this point about supply chain constraints facing the utility sector as we head into the hurricane season?

Amy Zubaly
Unfortunately, yes, definitely. I think that that concern continues.

Transformers, particularly three phase transformers, along with other power restoration materials still have very long lead times these days. We had concerns about supply chain constraints leading into the last couple of seasons. And unfortunately, those concerns remain in place this year.

Throughout the year, our utilities build and keep a separate storm stock of supplies that's in addition to our regular operating stock of supplies. And we use that special storm stock for hurricanes and other critical emergency situations. While we were fortunate last year to only have one major hurricane that hit Florida, then we were all able to restore power to our customers without significant supply chain constraints. However, had we been hit with a second category three or higher storm or let alone a third, that supply chain situation could have been substantially worse. And so the same holds true for this year as we prepare for the 2024 season.

We're pretty confident that we can restore power to our customers in a timely manner if we're hit with one major storm, whether that be a three, a four or five. But you know if the tropics are as active as predicted, and if we have multiple hurricanes, that supply chain situation may create some significant problems in our typical expeditious response. And I know that utilities and other states are also experiencing these same supply chain delays.

And so finding those needed transformers and materials could be difficult. So if that situation were to arise, we'll certainly be leaning on and relying on APPA's network to get our needs put out across the country to other utilities that could potentially help.

Paul Ciampoli
And I guess it goes without saying that at this point in time there's no light at the end of the tunnel from your vantage point as far as easing of these constraints.

Amy Zubaly
We continue to have conversations with manufacturers and suppliers and they know that that hurricane season is quickly approaching and doing all they can to help us with our needs and if that situation arises to help us prioritize our customers and we continue to network across utilities to share information and find out what types of supplies each other has. But you know, we're still we're still working through it. So I think we're still going to be facing some challenges for the immediate future.

Paul Ciampoli
Amy, thanks so much for taking the time out of your day to to speak with us. I would like to make two invitations to you. First is to perhaps have you come back as a guest once hurricane season is over, kind of review how things went. And, also separately, obviously FMEA is active and has a lot of interesting projects on underway or completed. So I'd love to talk to you about those as well.

Amy Zubaly
Well, I hope that when I come back at the end of hurricane season that maybe I don't have a whole lot to talk about.

Paul Ciampoli
Yes, yes, we can all hope. Definitely. So, Amy, thanks again for taking the time. Really appreciate it.

Amy Zubaly
Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me.

Paul Ciampoli
Thanks for listening to this episode of Public Power Now, which is produced by Julio Guerrero, Graphic and Digital Designer at APPA. I'm Paul Ciampoli and we'll be back next week with more from the world of public power.