Officials: Hurricane Irma could cause 4.1M customers to lose power in Florida

With Hurricane Irma aiming for South Florida's tri-county area, millions of people are expected to lose power to their homes and businesses in what could result in a major rebuilding of Florida Power & Light's infrastructure.

The storm has the potential to be the biggest disaster in FPL’s, and Florida’s history. Hurricane Irma could cause power outages to 4.1 million customers, FPL officials said Friday. Hurricane Wilma in 2005 was the hurricane that to date resulted in the highest number of FPL customers without power — 3.2 million.

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“This is not about repairing. It’s about replacing and rebuilding,” FPL president and CEO Eric Silagy said Thursday outside of the company’s command center, which is built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane.

Irma’s 185 mph winds are capable of snapping concrete power poles, Silagy said. The storm could spawn tornadoes, and bring floods and storm surge, as well, he said. Power outages could occur multiple times to the same property.

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Rebuilding and an anticipated extensive restoration could take weeks and easily cost more than $1 billion, Silagy estimated.

Irma is expected to hit Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties especially hard, and they’re home to close to 8 million people, Silagy said. FPL has 5 million customer accounts representing 10 million people in 35 counties — half the state’s population.

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“Two-thirds of our customers are in those three counties,” Silagy said. “We have the strongest grid in the U.S. We will just have to execute the plan.”

Ninety percent of FPL’s customers are within 20 miles of the coast, where winds are forecast to be the strongest.

Thursday, hundreds of FPL employees were working to prepare for power restoration after the storm makes landfall and on logistics needed to house and feed utility workers from outside Florida as well as to make sure they have the tools and trucks needed.

Silagy said, “My biggest challenge right now is getting additional crews in because of Hurricane Harvey and because every utility on the Eastern Seaboard is looking at being impacted by the storm. There is a prediction for a Cat 3 in the Carolinas after it hits Florida.”

Workers are coming in from Wisconsin, throughout the Midwest, Texas, California and Canada, Silagy said. FPL expects to have 10,000 workers available before the storm makes landfall and expects to double that over the next week.

“We are swarming this and doing everything we can,” Silagy said.

Crews cannot begin work until winds are below 35 mph and water has receded, FPL spokesman Rob Gould said Thursday at the command center.

An estimated 40 percent of FPL’s customers have never experienced a hurricane, Gould said. Hurricane Matthew in October 2016 mostly impacted areas north of West Palm Beach. So, there hasn’t been a recent hurricane that would have taken out vegetation.

“Mother Nature has not done any housecleaning in South Florida to speak of, from West Palm south, so there’s going to be a tremendous amount of vegetation to come down,” Gould said. “We have a lot of electric equipment in that area. No matter how much you have made the system resilient and you have hardened the system, you are still subject to trees coming down that are not on our right-of-way. You are still subject to debris flying through.”

The outlook for Irma is that some homes will be damaged too badly for power to be restored, because there will be nothing to restore power to, Gould said. Substations, power lines, transformers, poles and other infrastructure could also have to be replaced.

“You will have a situation after this storm likely, where we will be positioned to restore power, but the house or the facility will not be able to accept power,” Gould said.

Power can go out for a number of reasons, such as a tree or car taking out a pole, a branch hitting a wire or a transformer being struck by lightning or a tornado. Underground lines are not a guarantee that power will not go out because at some point, the lines go above ground to connect to the grid.

About 60 percent of FPL’s system is above ground, and about 40 percent is underground or hardened.

During the storm, FPL may cut off power to some customers. For example, if a substation is flooded or if flood monitors are going off, as a precaution the substation is taken offline to prevent more damage and more costly repairs, Gould said.

FPL’s logistics manager, Barry Wilkinson said, “Logistics is all about preparation. We prepare all year long. We have been at this heavily for the last four days.”

While FPL is normally stocked up to in case of a Cat 4 storm, it now has added enough transformers and other equipment to deal with a Cat 3 on top of that.

“We will be rebuilding. We already know that unless it takes a drastic turn,” Wilkinson said.

FPL has 22 staging sites where the workers will pick up equipment and trucks and be fed, and the number of sites will probably grow, Wilkinson said. Hotel rooms have been or are being reserved for the workers.

FPL has roughly $100 million worth of equipment and materials on hand including 13,000 transformers, 15,000 miles of wire and 25,000 poles, and more is on the way.

Since 2006 FPL has spent close to $3 billion on hardening its grids, including inspecting poles and replacing them as needed.

FPL said that since Wilma in 2005, it has much more technology as its disposal, including drones to survey for damage in hard-to-reach areas, smart meters and smart devices.

Silagy called for patience during and after the powerful storm takes its toll.

“It’s not going to be convenient,” Silagy said. “Let’s hope it does a Matthew on us and goes a little bit out to the right. Every mile makes a difference.”

Where to report power outages

FPL said the easiest way to report an outage is on its app.

Download it from the app store. Or, report the outage online at

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