Irma knocked out electricity to 60% of OUC’s customers, but power was restored to most of them in only a few days.
Five years ago, Hurricane Irma delivered a powerful statement that has influenced OUC’s storm preparedness planning and training ever since. Irma was a hurricane in name only by the time she arrived in Central Florida, her sustained winds reaching only 59 miles per hour – 15 mph less than Category 1 status – at Orlando International Airport. Still, Irma, a Category 3 troublemaker when she made landfall near Marco Island, proved that a storm with prolonged strong winds, with hers gusting up to 79 mph in Orange County, and drenching rain could inflict paralyzing damage on an energy grid.
Out of OUC’s 240,000 electric customers at the time, 145,000, or 60%, lost power. Overhead powerlines took the brunt of the storm’s wrath, casualties of toppled trees or branches landing on them.
Powerline crews with OUC and its contractors and assisting municipal utilities, plus tree trimmers and other field workers – more than 1,000 in all – worked nonstop to restore power. Most customers had their lights back on in only a couple of days after Irma hit, and by Sept. 16, six days after impact, 99.5% of the outages were resolved. The pace of OUC’s power restoration work exceeded investor-owned utilities across the state.
Nick Emmons was only in his second week of training to be an apprentice powerline technician when Irma blew through Greater Orlando. He remembers being in a classroom one day and the next being dispatched to work in a support capacity with crews assigned to repair storm damage and restore electricity. It was the proverbial baptism by fire.
After a few 16-hour days of toiling in oppressive heat and stifling humidity, Emmons began to second-guess his career choice. But his misgivings were erased when the line crew he was working with received a hero’s welcome from College Park residents who were relieved to see OUC bucket trucks roll into their neighborhood.
“It was a very rewarding experience to know you’re helping the community,” says Emmons, now a Line Tech II. The experience, he recalls, “taught me to respect lineman in their line of work. You kind of take them for granted. But it’s a dangerous line of work, and doing it gives you a different perspective.”
A few days before Irma posed a potential threat the Orlando area, OUC activated its Incident Command team, an all-hands-on-deck group of employees representing every department, with many tasked with assignments that are not part of their usual duties.
Joe Reilly (right), Director of Operational Technology, assumed the role of Deputy Incident Commander as the storm headed toward the Florida Keys as a Category 4. He and then-Incident Commander Ken Zambito, Vice President of Transmission and Interim VP of Digital & Technology, worked alternate shifts in the epicenter of the Incident Management Center.
Reilly says the job of an Incident Commander is to facilitate and coordinate responsibilities among various teams across the Commission, with the goal of repairing damaged utility infrastructure and restoring electric and water services as quickly as possible. (Fortunately, OUC’s water system emerged from Irma in good shape.) At the same time, teams work on everything from customer communications to securing supplies for field crews to arranging lodging for hundreds of out-of-town lineworkers and tree trimmers OUC summoned to help with the recovery.
“Every one of us has other things to do, so the workload is incredible when there’s a hurricane that could hit us,” he says.
Reilly says he was in awe of the volume of material the Irma recovery took, equating it to being “almost like a Sam’s Club.”
The logistics team secured 14,000 pounds of food and 8,500 snack bags for everyone assigned to hurricane duty. It also arranged lodging, meals, laundry service, fuel and vehicle maintenance for hundreds of field workers.
“My personal learning experience from Irma was on the logistics side,” says Reilly. “We were fortunate to have the resources in place to support all of our teams.”
Rounding up outside help fell on Julie Leininger (right), Sr. Contract Administrator, who acts as the mutual aid coordinator when OUC is either requesting help or offering to send it to other municipal utilities in times of emergencies.
Thirty-seven utilities in Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Tennessee sent line techs, with some able to spare only one or two. All told, Leininger helped assemble about 750 field workers, including more than 400 mutual aid lineworkers, to complement OUC’s 270-member on-site storm recovery team.
“Due to the path of Irma, OUC originally wanted to secure more crews to help with the recovery, but we weren’t the only one requesting help,” she says. “And utilities that were worried Irma could come their way took a wait-and-see approach to lending help, so some help came after Irma.”
Luz Aviles (above left), Vice President of Customer Experience & Sales, and Jenise Osani (above right), Vice President of Marketing & New Products, worked together handling OUC’s communications outreach during Irma.
As the Deputy Public Information Officer, Aviles gathered information from various teams and determined what needed to be shared with stakeholders, government officials, customers, the general public, employees and the news media. She also represented OUC at briefings with Orange County Government and handled Spanish-speaking engagements.
Meanwhile, Osani, as Content Developer, led the effort to push out the latest updates over a multitude of communications channels.
OUC leveraged social media, local news media, its website, an automated phone system, email and other outlets to keep customers, the general public, government officials and employees in the loop. Traffic on OUC.com was so heavy at times that the site crashed, Osani recalls.
Aviles remembers her Customer Service reps being inundated with calls and emails from customers wanting to know when their power would be restored. They were so backlogged that she jumped in to help them, personally answering customer calls.
“A supervisor was shocked that a vice presidents would come and help them, but it was the right thing to do for our customers,” she says.
Osani says hurricane duty brings out the team spirit at OUC.
“People always ask me what is my favorite thing about working for a utility, and I tell them it’s when we have to prepare for a storm and get into our roles,” she says. “There are no egos, everybody’s working together and doing their part to do their best amid the chaos. It’s inspiring.”
The advance warning of Irma sent OUC’s Stanton Energy Center (SEC) into hurricane preparation mode, with a group of about 50 power plant workers, including Wade Gillingham (right), Vice President of Electric & Water Production, set to stay on site until the facility was in the clear.
“We can’t leave the plant in a hurricane situation. Everyone brought in their own food, so we all had what we wanted to eat, and there were air mattresses to sleep on,” says Gillingham. “You don’t know how long you’re going to be in lockdown. Thankfully, Irma wasn’t as long-lasting as Frances in ’04, when we were on lockdown for five days.”
As Irma’s winds began knocking out electricity across OUC’s service territory, which includes St. Cloud, the ride-out team throttled back on power generation as a safety precaution to avoid overloading the grid.
To keep ride-out crew members focused on the jobs at hand, Gillingham says he stresses the importance of making sure their families are safe before going into lockdown.
“I sent my family to Georgia before Irma, because I didn’t want to be worried about them while I’m here,” he says, adding he encourages ride-out crew members to move their families to safety. “Please take care of all your matters at home before coming in here to ride it out.”
In the five years after Irma, OUC has hardened its grid and carried out an aggressive vegetation management program to reduce overhead line interactions with trees while implementing annual hurricane planning and training exercises.
Fortunately, Central Florida hasn’t been hit by a big storm since 2017 despite very active hurricane seasons in 2020 and 2021. Meanwhile, the 2022 season, which is halfway over, hasn’t lived up to expectations, which comes as a relief.
“I’m afraid to even say the word ‘hurricane’ for fear of jinxing just how calm this season has been,” says Leininger, the mutual aid coordinator during Irma. “We don’t want to ever go through another Irma.”