Skip to main content
Start of main content

How can utilities prepare for the next big storm?

September 19, 2022

By Cara Macmillan and Jenay Johnson

Planning for the next hurricane will require big preventative steps

It’s no secret that Floridians enjoy countless days on the beach, at pools, and attending year-round outdoor sporting events. You can’t beat the amazing attractions, stunning vegetation, and pristine wildlife.

But living in Florida is not all sunshine and rainbows. We have intense heat in the summers that often comes with frequent lightning storms. And even though many of us do not take hurricanes as seriously as we should, we also face the threat of these tremendous storms each year from June through November. Granted, there are years with little to no storm activity. But we are always anticipating when the next big storm will come. And in recent years, hurricane season has produced some significant storms.

As climate change causes more extreme weather events, electrical outages are occurring more often. In 2017 alone, the United States was rocked by three major hurricanes: Harvey in Texas and Louisiana, Maria in Puerto Rico, and of course Irma in Florida. These three storms are in the top five costliest storms in US history, and the responsiveness and restoration efforts for each storm was vastly different.

Because of extra steps taken by a large utility in Florida that is renowned for their storm restoration methods, regaining power  was achieved 10 days after Irma left their territory. It was the fastest restoration of the largest number of people by any one utility in US history. Floridians were able to go back to their normal lives much faster than those communities that were slammed with similar storms that year. For the other two storms, the outcome was not as successful and resulted in prolonged outages, with some customers not receiving power for almost a year after Hurricane Maria.

The clear difference in the three storm outcomes provides lessons learned that can be applied throughout the power industry in coastal areas. Below are three steps every utility provider should be proactively taking to mitigate potential hurricane risks:

  1. Prepare existing infrastructure
  2. Perform site-specific Analyses
  3. Create an action plan 

Floridians face the threat of hurricanes each year from June through November.

1. Prepare the existing infrastructure

Simply put, most of the current infrastructure in many coastal communities will not stand up to the next hurricane or major storm event. We must take proactive measures to ensure equipment is ready to withstand more severe weather conditions such as high-speed winds and extreme flooding.

In the power industry, we call this ‘hardening’ the grid. Hardening efforts include actions such as upgrading old wood poles to larger wood poles, and in some cases, concrete or steel poles. Florida recently adopted a new storm hardening law that requires utilities to create 10-year hardening plans. These plans deploy more undergrounding and tree trimming, as well as sturdier overhead wires and poles. Because the cost is spread to an entire rate base, hardening and undergrounding is now being prioritized in areas with the greatest reliability issues. Paying a little upfront for upgrades to the power grid means we will pay less on the back end. 

As Floridians working in the power delivery field, we attempt to get in front of future storms by creating designs that promote storm resiliency.

Currently, our team is providing transmission design services for a client in the Southern United States. By replacing 132 wood structures with new concrete poles in the region..

Hardening is proven to get the lights on more quickly after a storm and is essential to protecting Florida seniors, families, and businesses. In fact, the number of poles that were damaged in the 2004 Florida-based storms—Charley, Francis, Ivan, and Jeanne—was significantly higher as compared to the number of damaged poles in recent years. In the time between those two storm years, utilities in Florida initiated their hardening programs and successfully replaced most of their critical infrastructure before Irma struck in 2017. The new poles, which can withstand up to 145mph winds, proved a success.

More utilities are choosing to make storm hardening a priority. But it is important that improvements are based on reliable analysis of their existing infrastructure.

ERA Sidebar CTA

No one can truly predict how severe a storm season will be.

2. Perform site-specific analyses

As Floridians working in the power delivery field, we attempt to get in front of future storms by creating designs that promote storm resiliency. Site-specific analysis is an essential step in the design process before a utility decides what type of storm hardening justifies the costs and what best meets their needs.

With the technology available today, analysis can be performed more quickly and produce better information than in the past. Our Company, for example, recently used advanced LIDAR data collection—including a “danger tree locator” application—to predict wire positions under different combinations of wind. Compared against the surveyed vegetation points, we can identify trees that encroach on wires. This kind of vegetation management is essential to any project set along the coast (or any high impact region for hurricanes) and vital to lessening power outages.

Blowout conditions—or the chance that a conductor could blow out to the side horizontally—are also determined during these assessments. The behavior of the line during windy conditions is calculated and then used to consider clearances to trees, buildings, and other objects. This helps to determine the strength needed for the appropriate pole design.

These are just a couple advanced methods that utilities can use to decrease damage and loss of power during a hurricane. And they will only grow and advance as time goes on.

ERA Sidebar CTA

Vegetation management is essential to any project set along the coast or any high impact region for hurricanes. It is vital to lessening power outages.

3. Create an action plan 

Natural disasters have become a reality in the coastal regions. Most local governments provide constant communication before, during, and after a storm through outlets like news stations and social media. Additionally, local and federal governments might declare a state of emergency prior to landfall.

Utility providers need to have similar action plans in place to better respond to a major event. There are a lot of components to these plans. Some examples include:

  • Preparing a massive mobilization effort for restoration personnel, trucks, equipment, and material.
  • Transporting extra material from neighboring utilities in anticipation of an event.
  • Constructing mini cities known as “staging sites” within a day of the storm passing to start the restoration effort immediately.
  • Providing food and catering to help feed the thousands of crews who report on site.
  • Arranging lodging accommodations for out of towners at local hotels.
  • Siting category 5 buildings in strategic locations to house crews ahead of the storm so they can hit the ground running minutes after the storm has passed.

All these efforts to bring in outside support is essential to successfully restoring power quickly after a storm. But it’s just as important to their action plan to have storm roles established for the local utility’s current staff. Each employee is assigned a storm role—outside of their normal day-to-day job responsibilities—that will be activated prior to the storm’s landfall. Each person is given a specific job to perform, allowing the utility to work methodically through the entire restoration period. Mock storms are planned each summer as a multi-day exercise to provide training and mimic the roles they would need to play during a real event.

ERA Sidebar CTA

Even with a well-executed action plan, damage and loss of power is often inevitable.

We should all be prepared

Hopefully, many of our peers have taken the steps to prepare for this season and beyond. As most Floridians know: Preparation—whether you are a utility, community, or household—is key. The decision to implement a storm hardening program, perform site-specific analyses, and create an action plan are big preventative steps for any utility. And not taking these steps can be worse in the long run.

No one can truly predict how severe a storm season will be. But we should all know the steps we must take to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our properties before the storm hits. Same goes for utilities, and the steps they can also take to make sure their customers best interests—and safety—are in mind.

ERA Sidebar CTA
  • Cara Macmillan

    Cara has over two decades of technical experience in the engineering field—focusing on transmission line projects, providing design and management support. As lead designer in a rebuild, she led coordination for all road, rail, and gas permitting.

    Contact Cara
  • Jenay Johnson

    As a transmission line team supervisor based in Lake Mary, Florida, Jenay has a diverse range of experience. She’s known for delivering successful, cost-effective projects.

    Contact Jenay
End of main content
To top