Like serial killers in movies, hurricanes often greet us with innocent-sounding names before things turn deadly. That was true of 2004’s Hurricane Frances, which raged across Florida and up into the Southeastern United States, tragically taking 49 lives before finally fading on Sept. 8. Sadly, unlike the movies, hurricane season is completely real – and always potentially catastrophic.
Out of that chaotic 2004 hurricane season – which overstayed its (un)welcome by stretching past its typical end on Nov. 30 to Dec. 5 – something new came into being: a 10-point plan, developed by Tampa Electric and Florida’s other electric utilities together with Florida Public Service Commission (PSC), to fortify electrical infrastructure for worst-case weather scenarios.
Those long days and nights during the onslaught of Hurricane Frances also marked the birth of a Boston terrier – named Frances, fittingly – for the family of Gordon Gillette, now president of Tampa Electric and Peoples Gas. Alongside team members throughout TECO, Gillette saw firsthand the impact of one of Florida’s worst hurricane seasons on record and he knows, like everyone at the company, that when it comes to preparing for severe weather, TECO has a dog in this race. The key is to be ready well before the race begins – before the winds pick up.
Taking advantage of the calm before the storm
“On a good day, balancing a lot of needs is something we do by trade, from providing reliable power, generated with environmental responsibility, to 725,000 electric customers, at rates 7 percent lower than they were nine years ago,” Gillette said. “Then hurricane season hits and we have a whole new set of things to balance – restoring critical facilities and as many customers as possible in the shortest time frame while protecting the safety of our community and our crews – and it all happens at lightning speed.”
In a recent address to the PSC, Gillette outlined the many ways TECO prepares for severe weather all year round. Since that fateful 2004 hurricane season, the company has invested more than $450 million – with more than $158 more over the next three years – on tree trimming, pole replacements and overall system hardening.
What does this include? Take a look at what we must manage across our 2,000-square-mile service area:
- Approximately 6,300 miles of overhead distribution lines.
- 1,300 miles of overhead transmission lines.
- 429,000 utility poles across our service area.
We inspect all of our poles on an eight-year cycle; in 2015, we performed a total of 58,378 pole inspections. In preparation for the 2016 storm season, we performed aerial infrared inspections on all of our 230-kilovolt (kV), 138kV and 69kV circuits – this includes approximately 26,000 structures – in December 2015. In addition:
- In 2015, Tampa Electric hardened 726 transmission structures at a cost of $12.2 million and upgraded 4,972 distribution poles at a cost of $21.7 million.
- This included 649 transmission pole replacements with steel or concrete poles.
- And in 2016, we’ll harden at least 500 more transmission structures, upgrade approximately 6,000 distribution poles and will install polymer insulators as replacements for older modules.
Since trees – as important as they are to our community – are a major cause of outages, we also trim vegetation close to electrical and natural gas infrastructure, covering our entire system on a four-year cycle. As a Tree Line USA utility proudly serving several Tree City USA cities, we do this in ways that protect the health of trees.
And while we’ve made great strides in recent years in reducing the number of momentary outages that customers experience – in 2015, we even achieved an all-time record for the lowest average number of momentary outages across our system – we also know that hurricane-force winds can lead to outages that go far beyond these types of momentary “flickers.”
Facing the “what-ifs”
Hurricane season inevitably brings up that dreaded question: what if the worst-case scenario happens? That’s where our membership in the Southeastern Electric Exchange (SEE) comes into play. With the mutual assistance pact we signed with other SEE utilities, we’ll have help from other companies’ crews if we need it. And we’ll send our crews to help other communities, as we’ve done time and again.
“The hurricanes of 2004 and then again in 2005 were a reminder that we can go a few years with calm storm seasons and then, all of a sudden, have major storms to deal with,” Gillette said. “Everyone in this industry in Florida knows that we can never be complacent. It’s our duty not to be, and at TECO, we embrace that responsibility because our families and homes are here too.”
When showtime arrives, we’re all on stage
That leads to the most important player when a hurricane – inevitably, sooner or later – arrives:
Our website has a lot of guidance, including a checklist of items you should keep on hand, reminders to locate the emergency shelter for your community, and much more. Each household is unique, so be sure to create a plan that addresses your specific needs.
Here are some other things you need to know:
- Stay away from downed power lines and avoid floodwaters. Always assume that a downed power line is energized, and move away to safety. Floodwaters can hide energized power lines or other hazards, or put you at risk of drowning.
- Caution: Use portable generators safely. DO NOT connect your portable generator to your home’s circuits. Plug your appliances directly into the generator. Connecting your generator to your home’s circuits may cause power to flow to outside lines, posing life-threatening danger to power restoration crews. Also, NEVER operate portable generators inside or near air conditioning ducts or in any enclosed space (including a closed garage) where deadly carbon monoxide gases could build up.
- Update your primary phone number at tampaelectric.com. Our automated power outage system, which you can access at 1-877-588-1010, identifies an outage at your residence or business by recognizing your phone number or Tampa Electric account number and matching it to the address we have on record for that number. Your primary number is the phone number most frequently associated with your home or business service address. It must be updated with us for the system to benefit you.
- Help for special needs customers. Counties provide shelter programs for those requiring special medical care. Special needs shelters are available for people requiring more skilled medical care than is available in a public shelter but not requiring an acute care facility, such as a hospital. To register for this kind of shelter care, please call the special needs registry in your area. Hillsborough: 813-307-8063; Polk: 863-298-7027; Pasco: 727-847-8137; and Pinellas: 727-464-3800.
- Medical Watch: Check into this helpful program if you’re a Tampa Electric customer who has been certified by your Florida-licensed physician as dependent upon electricity-powered life support equipment.
- Determine your flood zone. At gisweb.hillsboroughcounty.org, click Planning and Growth Management – Flood Maps to see if you live in an area expected to experience heavy flooding in the event of severe weather.
- Find us online: Use our outage map for information about outages – including locations, the number of people affected and estimated restoration time frames – and sign up for Power Updates to receive texts, emails, and/or phone calls regarding your service and other important information. In addition, find updates on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Our commitment to safety and reliability for the community, especially during hurricane season, is a huge job: not only must we be thorough and compliant with federal, state and local regulations, but we have to perform our work in the safest, smartest, most cost-effective ways we can. If there’s one positive aspect of hurricanes, it’s that you see them coming. But every hurricane season, nevertheless, takes the effort, and especially the preparations, of everyone. You included.
This and every hurricane season – and all year long – we’re focused on getting through severe weather together. That means all of us, from a little dog named Frances to each customer we serve and the people, 20 million strong and growing, in the great state named Florida.