On the eve of hurricane season, Florida’s utility companies say they are ready

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With the 2012 hurricane season starting June 1, Florida’s electric and telephone companies gave assurances Wednesday that they are ready to deal with punishing winds, downed lines and grinding outages that a storm could bring, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

The companies have enjoyed relative calm since eight hurricanes slammed into the state in 2004 and 2005. But officials told the state Public Service Commission that they have continued ongoing work such as inspecting and replacing poles, upgrading communications and conducting hurricane-preparedness drills.

“FPL is confident that it is well prepared for the 2012 season,” said Sam Moore, general manager of operations in the Miami-Dade region for the state’s largest utility.

But while Florida has repeatedly dodged hurricane damage in recent years, Public Service Commission Chairman Ronald Brise gave a first-hand reminder of the frustrations that hit residents in many parts of the state in 2004 and 2005.

Brise, who said his Miami home lost electricity for nearly 3 weeks because of hurricane damage, asked utility officials whether they would be better prepared to handle a repeat of the 2005 season.

Jason Cutliffe, director of distribution asset management for Progress Energy Florida, said his company was most affected by the 2004 season. He said Progress handled that season well but would be better prepared now.

“I can tell you without reservation our performance will be better the next time it happens,” Cutliffe said.

FPL was heavily criticized by state officials in 2005 after Hurricane Wilma hit the Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas and many residents were without power for more than two weeks.

Commissioners on Wednesday listened to presentations from FPL, Progress, Tampa Electric Co., Gulf Power Co. and Florida Public Utilities Co., along with representatives of municipal utilities and electric cooperatives. Also, they heard from AT&T Florida, Verizon Florida and CenturyLink.

Much of the electric-utility discussion centered on continuing programs to inspect and “harden” poles and other infrastructure and to trim trees and vegetation. Utilities said they do the work in cycles, as it takes years to cover what can be vast amounts of territory and tens of thousands of pieces of equipment.

Also, officials said their companies have started using social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, that could provide updated information to customers about restoring power after a hurricane. Moore said the most frequent question that utility customers have is, “When will my power be back on?”

While telecommunications companies also do such things as equipment inspection and replacement, other parts of their hurricane preparedness efforts reflect changes in the industry in recent years. As an example, companies have mobile units that can be used if cell-phone towers are damaged in a storm.

Also, the industry has moved toward using underground fiber-optic lines. That could reduce storm damage related to overhead lines.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.