Powering Strong Communities

FMEA Executive Director Amy Zubaly Details Key Role of Mutual Aid in Response to Hurricane Ian

In a recent Q&A with Public Power Current, Amy Zubaly, Executive Director of the Florida Municipal Electric Association (FMEA), details how mutual aid planning laid a solid foundation for the speedy restoration of power in the state in the wake of Hurricane Ian, which hit Florida in late September.

As of 9 p.m. Tuesday, October 4, nearly 100 percent of the more than 1.5 million Florida public power customers across the state are receiving electricity. A small number of customers are unable to accept electricity due to excessive damage, damages to their homes, or significant flooding. Utilities will continue to work diligently to restore power to these remaining customers, FMEA said.

“Mutual aid planning for Hurricane Ian began on Friday, September 23, when there was a high probability of the storm hitting Florida as a strong hurricane later the following week,” Zubaly noted.

“At that point the storm track was shifting between a landfall in the Tampa area or in North Florida along the Big Bend region. Already knowing that requests for mutual aid from Florida public power utilities would soon start coming in, FMEA reached out to other state and regional public power mutual aid coordinators asking them to begin gathering over the weekend the numbers of crews they could provide for mutual aid assistance,” she said in response to questions from Public Power Current.

In addition, FMEA asked the American Public Power Association (APPA) to hold a mutual aid call on the following Monday, September 26 with the other state and regional public power mutual aid coordinators, Zubaly said.

By Monday morning, September 26, FMEA had already begun assigning available mutual aid resources to those Florida public power utilities that requested crews for prestaging or for post-storm arrival.

“Florida was still anticipating landfall somewhere along the Tampa Bay area or north. By the end of the day Monday, already hundreds of public power mutual aid resources were being requested and assigned to requesting utilities – some for prestaging and some for arrival post-storm, which at that point was most likely for a Friday or Saturday arrival,” Zubaly said.

However, by Tuesday afternoon, the track of Ian had shifted a little further east. This resulted in an anticipated landfall somewhere further south along the southwest coast of Florida, with landfall much earlier than originally anticipated, and changing projected impacts to Florida public power.

Many crews that were scheduled to depart and/or arrive later in the week were asked to change to an earlier arrival date, and to prestage outside of Florida to wait until the storm passed through and conditions were safe to travel, Zubaly said.

Hurricane Ian ultimately made landfall on the afternoon of Wednesday, September 28 in southwest Florida as a strong a powerful Category 4 hurricane. “The changing track also resulted in changing mutual aid needs. Once the storm passed through Florida and FMEA members were able to make damage assessments, mutual aid crews were immediately shifted around based on needs in areas of impact,” Zubaly noted.

Ian left more than 2.6 million customers in Florida in the dark, with more than 212,000 of them from 23 of Florida’s 33 public power utilities. Ultimately more than 750 lineworkers from 150 public power utilities in 22 states were committed to Florida public power utilities.

“Within 24 hours post landfall, while Ian was still unleashing its wrath in some areas of the state, public power had restored more than 57% of those customers initially experiencing outages; in 48 hours post landfall, nearly 80% of our customers were restored; and in 72 hours post landfall, more than 90% of those customers that had experienced outages were restored,” she said.

Supply Chain

Zubaly also addressed the question of whether supply chain challenges have been a factor in terms of completing power restoration in the state.

“Supply chain needs continue to be a challenge, but we had what we needed after Hurricane Ian to turn the lights back on for our customers,” she said.

Florida utilities “prepare year-round for hurricanes – the season begins June 1 and lasts until November 30. Part of that preparation involves maintaining a storm stock of electric grid supplies and materials that are typically used during hurricane restoration. Utilities still maintain their normal operating stock, but in addition, also increase supplies for their separate storm reserve.”

While electric grid supply chain constraints “have made it challenging to increase our storm reserve supplies to typical levels and maintaining our normal operating supplies, we were prepared as a whole to be able to restore power if hit with one large-scale hurricane. However, supply chain challenges still exist. If Florida, or even another area in the southeast, gets hit with another major hurricane this season, obtaining needed supplies will be even more challenging.”

In addition, destruction in certain areas of the state “was so expansive -- and the need to restore expeditiously so acute -- that the most impacted utilities were supplied stock from other in-state utilities, further depleting in-state stocks among all Florida electric utilities,” Zubaly noted.

“And while we were able to restore power to our customers with supplies we had on hand, supplies for our normal operations, including new development, are dwindling rapidly. Suppliers and manufacturers prioritized transformers and other supplies needed for immediate hurricane restoration, but that has put additional delays on manufacturing of normal operating supplies,” she said.