Florida hurricane recovery won’t be fast in the time of COVID-19

Every year before hurricane season, Florida Power & Light and others on the front lines of disaster response make plans to bring reinforcements from other states to help if a big one hits. In the past, contractors and crews have come from as far away as Canada to aid local utility workers in getting homes back on the grid.

In the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, that may not happen.

The probable result: More days without power or internet, probably in sweltering summer heat.

Consider that in the best of scenarios, with a grid that had been fortified by billions in investments, it took FPL more than 10 days to restore power to some areas in Florida after Hurricane Irma. Nearly all its service area — 90 percent, or 4.4 million consumers — lost power.

This year, social-distancing measures and travel restrictions could dramatically change lots of things about hurricane recovery. Working with insurers, already a grueling and lengthy ordeal, may grind even slower from a shortage of adjusters.

Shelters, before and after storms, will have social-distancing rules and less room. The Red Cross, in fact, is urging residents who might be forced to evacuate to consider shelters as a last resort. Instead, they should make plans now to reduce the risk of a double disaster in the event of a hurricane strike — storm damage and a potential COVID-19 illness.

“Find a family member or a friend that’s outside the trajectory of the hurricane and shelter with them. If not, go to a hotel and spend the night in your own private room,” said Grace Meinhofer, a spokeswoman for the South Florida region.

Zoo Miami's parking lot became one of the main staging areas for FPL and dozens of other power companies helping with relief efforts after Hurricane Irma in 2017.
Zoo Miami’s parking lot became one of the main staging areas for FPL and dozens of other power companies helping with relief efforts after Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Of course, the biggest player in recovery is FPL and the utility is adapting its plans for this hurricane season.

“The pandemic is going to impact us in ways that aren’t helpful because it creates less productivity,” Eric Silagy, FPL’s CEO, said in an interview last week when the company started to hold hurricane drills. “That’s why I really need customers to be prepared because we may have extended outages.”

Massive staging areas will be downsized and spread out. Multiple crews won’t be allowed to congregate in large groups at staging sites. Temperature checks will be mandatory for every single response team member. And getting extra people to help may be problematic as confirmed coronavirus cases are on the rise in nearly half of all states, with Florida recording record numbers in recent days.

Weather experts are predicting an above-average 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, which started June 1 and ends November 30. Even before the official start of the season two named storms formed in the Atlantic last month. The possibility of a double calamity as the coronavirus is layered on top of a potentially active hurricane season is a planner’s worst nightmare.

Samantha Montano, assistant professor of emergency management at The Massachusetts Maritime Academy, said a severe storm like Hurricane Michael or Hurricane Irma would stress the state and nation’s ability to respond while keeping people safe from the virus.

“I don’t think Florida, given their case numbers right now, is ready to handle an event like that. Thinking of doing an Irma size evacuation event right now is horrifying,” she said. “I don’t think that happens without a huge spread of COVID.”

For FPL, hurricane training this year has focused not just on turning on the lights but preventing the spread of the serious respiratory illness that has killed more than 3,200 people in the state and over 121,000 nationwide since March.

Though much of South Florida started to gradually reopen earlier this month, social-distancing guidelines and tight restrictions mean that FPL just can’t do hurricanes like it used to.

Smaller staging sites

The utility’s staging sites, the backbone of FPL’s massive hurricane response operations, won’t run at full capacity to reduce the risk of transmission among workers. The utility has 100 staging sites ready to go across Florida.

In past responses, the sites have operated like bustling campgrounds where hundreds of people converge to launch restoration efforts. FPL workers and contractors eat, sleep, shower and do laundry in tents and trailers while trucks are fueled, equipment is moved and restoration plans are decided by logistics teams closely gathered around screens with real-time images of the grid.

Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses in Miami-Dade and Broward County were hit by power outages as Hurricane Irma took aim at the lower Florida Keys in September 2017.
Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses in Miami-Dade and Broward County were hit by power outages as Hurricane Irma took aim at the lower Florida Keys in September 2017.

That won’t happen this year. Instead, there will be new, more widely spaced out staging areas and expanded use of smaller “micro” areas.

“I can’t do things in a mass way,” Silagy said.

The uncertainty of backup help also adds a potential new challenge.

When Hurricane Irma hit Florida in September 2017, the utility used crews from 30 states and Canada to restore electricity, deploying 28,000 workers across its coverage area. Every one of the 35 counties served by FPL was affected, and 90 percent of the utility’s 5 million customers lost power. This year, the flow of out-of-state help will depend on travel restrictions and COVID-19 trends in other states.

The utility will rely more heavily on technology such as artificial intelligence and drones to speed up restoration work. What FPL calls smart grid technology allows the system to repair itself, or to isolate outages with the use of smart switches. And drones will be busier this hurricane season as they can quickly assess damage and help crews plan repairs. During Irma, FPL had over 50 drone teams that conducted more than 1,300 flights to identify problems after the storm.

Volunteers to work remotely

Leading disaster relief organizations like the American Red Cross are also making major changes to hurricane response planning.

A key manager of shelters in South Florida, the organization staffed and ran evacuation centers where thousands of residents sought refuge during the largest mass evacuation in U.S. history ahead of Irma. Victims spent many days at Red Cross-run shelters receiving meals and a place to rest, as well as health services and emotional support from an army of volunteers.

This year, refuge will look very different. A typical evacuation center will need to spread people out, provide a wellness and temperature check to everyone entering the space and also have an isolation area for evacuees who are showing signs of illness. Shelter staff will provide personal protective equipment to all guests and to volunteers, and several hand-washing stations will be set up to provide better hygiene, said Meinhofer.

People at a Red Cross shelter set up at North Miami Beach Senior High School eat lunch, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017 before Irma made landfall in Florida.
People at a Red Cross shelter set up at North Miami Beach Senior High School eat lunch, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017 before Irma made landfall in Florida.

In Miami-Dade, emergency managers are expanding potential shelters to 82 from 20 that were available in 2017 for Irma, to ensure there is extra space: instead of giving each person an area of 20 square feet inside the shelter, the county is increasing it to 36 square feet. And county managers are also planning COVID-19 screening at the door, to be able to separate the infected and symptomatic from the healthy.

But just like FPL, the Red Cross will probably have a staffing problem if a big storm hits. Though more volunteers signed up to work in hurricane response this year, getting them to shelters will be tricky. And the Red Cross volunteer work force traditionally has a high percentage of older people who are at higher risk of severe infection if they are contaminated by the coronavirus.

The plan is to offer some services virtually, though even those new protocols may not work in case the shelters also lose power.

Adjuster shortage worsens

And then there’s insurance adjusters, the people who inspect damage in a home or business. It’s an in-person visit that’s essential to file an insurance claim.

Daniel Odess, president of Coral Gables-based commercial insurance firm GlobalPro, said his clients already are having a hard time getting adjusters to visit their properties in person due to COVID-19 concerns.

If a powerful storm does hit, he worries that insurance adjusters will face travel restrictions and safety protocols that will further slow down the process.

Before the pandemic, there were already issues with having enough post-hurricane adjusters speedily inspecting properties. The many storms of 2017 meant that residents of the Florida Keys were last in line for a visit from the traveling pack of adjusters that roam the country after disasters. It ground recovery to a halt.

“We have a shortage of adjusters no matter what,” Odess said. “COVID is a compounding issue.”

Another worry for Odess is something he’s seen with his commercial clients hit with business interruptions and damages from back to back crises: the coronavirus shutdowns and the occasional rioting and looting alongside the Black Lives Matter protests.

When several of his clients attempted to file a claim for a broken window from the rioting, he said the insurance company wanted to know how much money they were making during the pandemic. The insurance companies wanted to base the claim payout on the lower income businesses are making during the shutdown, not the pre-pandemic cash flow.

Odess sees that as an ominous warning for hurricane season, where businesses struck by a storm might only be compensated back to pandemic levels of income.

“It’s foreshadowing an issue that’s going to take hold here,” he said. “This is an incredibly complex issue and I believe policyholders are in for a troubling time if we’re struck by a powerful storm.”