Tallahassee, FL — state capital and university town (go ‘Noles!), is a fairly liberal city, with a Democratic slant. It’s also a city where a minor hurricane shut the whole place down for five days, from the evening of September 1 until Wednesday morning, September 7, when schools finally reopened.
Many Tallahasseans joke that this is a city where even a sneeze can cause lights to flicker. I suspect most people knew power outages would be widespread with Hermine. But most people also thought the City was better-prepared to fix what breaks.
Tallahassee is called the “City of Trees.” Decades ago, the City and its residents began a commitment to preserve as many of its beautiful trees as possible and as a result, Tallahassee is a very attractive Southern city, situated atop and nestled around a series of rolling hills, under a lovely green canopy.
What the City did not do over the past decades is either develop a plan to minimize the damage those big ‘ol trees could cause in a storm, or maximize the scale of the recovery effort. In other words, if you’re too cheap to put key utility lines under ground, or to harden the poles and lines, then you better have enough trained and equipped workers ready to tackle a major storm aftermath.
This should have been relatively easy to accomplish. Possibly because it is a “liberal” city, Tallahassee’s electric power is provided by its own municipal utility. The City therefore calls the shots when it comes to electric policy — a fact that could and should have been a strategic advantage (especially since Tally electric power is not cheap).
So why didn’t the City have in place a bona fide strategic plan that would preserve trees while protecting the power supply — especially since the last hurricane to hit the City happened some 30 years ago?
This is Florida, home of football Hurricanes and real life ones, too. A hurricane isn’t something that MIGHT happen. It is something that WILL happen.
I’m sure we’ll continue to hear bluster from City officials that they DO have a plan (apparently a secret one). But even if they do, it needs to be tossed.
It’s been reported that other power companies, notably FPL and Duke, offered to help restore power after the hurricane, but the City refused! At first, when challenged about this, the City claimed they turned away NO help. Later, they claimed they only turned away help they were unable to use effectively.
The way I read that, the City’s emergency restoration plan was woefully too small for the job.
We’ve also learned that many of the crews that were allowed to work had difficulty getting assigned, as confusion reigned among the “upper management” tiers.
I’m not very big on “upper management,” but it’s painfully clear “upper management” let down the workforce — and the public.
With all this as a frontispiece, here’s what new Mayor Gillum should have said as recovery efforts faltered:
“We need to do better. I am extremely angry that our city has failed to meet my expectations and those of all the people who call Tallahassee their home, and I promise you we will fix this.”
I would have cheered. But….He didn’t do that.
I suspect that as the revelations of poor planning and mismanagement continue to emerge — he’ll finally get there. When he does, here is what needs to happen.
Fixing the Problems
- Convene a task force — with a deadline to produce a series of recommendations. The task force should be comprised of managers from cities (counties, state agencies, utilities) with effective emergency plans. (Tampa comes to mind.)
- The recommendations must cover several key subjects:
- Conduct a “forensic review” of what happened — where power went out, when and why.
- Identify powerline “choke points” most susceptible to storm damage. Thomasville Road, a major tree-lined artery where wires are strung on wooden poles, comes to mind.
- Identify fixed structures (relays and communications centers) that are inadequately protected, or simply inadequate.
- Review the grid routing system — can power distribution be rerouted, either permanently or during an emergency, with fewer distruptions?
- Grid maintenance and expansion. Are systems sufficiently redundant (backed up)?
- Staffing and training. Are there enough supervisors to direct existing staff resources, as well as outside resources offering to help (so instead of being parked at a greyhound race track in nearby Monticello, waiting for permission to enter Tallahassee that never came, crews from Duke Energy (or others) could be promptly and effectively put to work).
- Command and control. It seems there wasn’t much.
- Communication with the public — residences and businesses. This is likely the biggest complaint out there.
- Material and resources. We’ve heard that not enough transformers, lines, and poles were on hand, for example.
- Timing and priorities. Goals for restoration of power should be set, and priorities clearly stated. It’s not just power. Hospitals have back-up power, for example, but downed trees or lines mean ambulances can’t get there. And why was the Governor’s Square Mall a priority to repower, but not assisted living facilities?
- Budgeting. How much should be committed to rebuild infrastructure to a better standard?
- Resource pooling. More arrangements with others, whether it’s other utilities, tree/landscape services, waste management, or state agencies. (The latest rumor is that the city yard waste and garbage contractors are balking at picking everything up!)
- Sharing information and plans with partners. The City claims it did not accept some help because it did not have sufficient staff to “embed” with the out-of-town crews. That problem could be reduced by sharing plans with partners beforehand. If I know where the switch is, I don’t necessarily need someone to take me to it.
- Have the recommendations reviewed by a citizen’s board. Try not to make this a stacked deck of sycophants, please, because the plan needs to pass “the giggle test”. Is it doable, or just a thick stack of paper? Is it going to cost an absurd amount? (One estimate claims $2 BILLION to put wires in the ground. That does not pass the giggle test.) Buy-in is a critical element for a successful plan.
- Implement the thing. Continuously test the communications system, and continuously train.
- Hire better people. And if the mayor doesn’t step up…. then elect a better mayor (and commission, too, while we’re at it).
Contrary to what some are saying, this is not a political issue. It is a governance issue, and the government did not do its job. Rather than deflect blame, they need to step up, identify the problems, and fix them.
The last hurricane to hit Tallahassee was Kate. It was a bigger, meaner storm, but power was actually restored faster 30 years ago than in 2016’s Hermine. Imagine how much more important the power grid is today than it was 30 years ago. And how much more important it will be in another 30 years.
Finger-pointing isn’t the answer.
Respectfully submitted September 8, 2016
Steven Webster, President