FPL has 263,800 customers in Sarasota, and Hurricane Irma cut power to 83 percent, or 218,840 of them. County commission chair Paul Caragiulo shed light on FPL’s progress in restoring power, posting the number of those with and without power on Facebook several times a day.
What made you decide to go on social media?
FPL’s CEO provided us with a website that updated the number of outages and repairs hourly. I got addicted and decided to provide updates on my Facebook page.
What was the reaction?
For some people it was a relief since it showed progress. It also created anxiety [if your] power was late in being restored. I got comments like, ‘I live across from the fairgrounds [FPL’s staging headquarters] and I’m still out.’ Well, it ain’t that easy.
What do you mean?
FPL was looking at restoration across all 35 counties in its service area. FPL had to move 28,000 workers and position all their assets. Robarts Arena was a staging ground for Manatee and Sarasota, all the way down to Englewood. We were one of 29 sites, which had to provide food, sleeping, laundry, IT for the entire operation. It was nothing short of a full military operation.
What surprised you?
The fragility of our system. We didn’t get sustained strong winds. I was surprised how many people lost power.
Should Sarasota put more utilities underground?
Undergrounding sounds like a good idea. Longboat just did a bond referendum. They’re paying up to $49 million to run 246,143 linear feet of utility cable that includes fiber optic. That’s $200 a foot. It’s expensive. Are people willing to pay more? Most zoning districts in Sarasota County already require that new developments put utilities underground. Most developers do it anyway because of the aesthetics. Undergrounding might protect power supply from wind damage but not from flooding. It could be costlier to repair and take longer as well, so it’s not a magic bullet.
What was one of your biggest takeaways?
The power of social media. We have to start communicating with people on their terms. When we publicize public hearings, we put things in newspapers. But who reads newspapers? Or we put up a yellow poster on the side of a road about a public hearing. If you’re driving, what are you going to do? Stop and read it? Talk about a piece of antiquity. Actual mail? You have five or six seconds to get my attention. Social media is extremely effective and it doesn’t cost anything.
What other issues should the county be looking at?
Vegetation management. Trees bring down a line and you might have a line wrapped around a pole now that will take physical work. You can’t just change a [computer] file from the staging area. The linespeople do the line work. They don’t start hacking trees. They contract out that work. Whose responsibility is tree trimming? Yeah, the tree is on private property, but you’re talking about [a public resource] that’s supplying to more people than the person whose property that tree is [on].
What would you like FPL to change?
Power will be a determining factor when someone decides where they want to live. FPL has tremendous influence within the legislative environment. There’s no question FPL did a great job running through the volume of those tickets. But how good a job did they do in the planning? Like any other business, they run off a return on their investment. It’s going to be hard to compel them to improve their infrastructure other than in a purely political way. FPL is regulated by the Public Service Commission, so the pressure needs to come from a larger area.
What can the county control?
We’ve got a great call center. They do a phenomenal job. They handle a lot of call volume. When I was in the EOC during the storm, the [call] queue at times was up to 215 people. But when you want information about shelters, you just want to get it out. We need to be able to deal with 10,000 people trying to find their evacuation zones, especially on mobile devices. The county also needs to look at the adequacy of shelters, redundant power and special needs.