TALLAHASSEE --- Restoring electricity after hurricanes this year would have added costs because of coronavirus physical-distancing requirements, utility officials told the Florida Public Service Commission on Tuesday.
Plans are underway to establish more staging areas to reduce crowds of relief workers, shift to single-serve packaging of food and revamp sleeping arrangements for restoration crews working remotely, as utilities look to prevent the spread of the virus.
Jason Cutliffe, Duke Energy Florida general manager of emergency preparedness, said part of the company’s changes were based on actions of first responders in New York, which has been one of the areas hardest hit by COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus.
“We’re looking at measures like reducing work crews to smaller numbers of six to 10, ensuring that they stay together for their eating arrangements, the showering arrangements,” Talley said. “In limiting the interaction of people on the staging site, if there is a positive test, the contact tracing is simpler and fewer people are affected.”
Asked directly by Commissioner Julie Brown if increased costs are expected in the restoration process, Florida Power & Light Senior Director of Emergency Preparedness Thomas Gwaltney replied, “The quick answer is, yes ma’am.”
Part of the increase could come from having to draw additional internal support as assistance from utility crews in other states might not be as large as in past years.
“There are some areas within the country that some of the resources actually have additional rates that they have for dealing with a pandemic, so we're not sure if that's going to be incorporated as well,” Gwaltney said. “It really depends on, quite honestly, when a storm and what the environment is at that time and how, you know, what's going on, probably, within the state of Florida.”
No one said the changes would slow restoration efforts.
Paul Talley, manager of Gulf Power's emergency-preparedness team, said companies have worked the past few months in putting together guidelines and processes around mutual assistance.
“In this new pandemic environment, these changes have the potential to change the way we respond and restore power following a major event,” Talley said. “Gulf continues to prepare and plan with FPL. There's a lot of great teamwork going on between the two companies right now to make sure that we have an effective plan in place if either one of us are impacted.”
Gulf and FPL are both part of NextEra Energy.
With the six-month hurricane season starting June 1, the Public Service Commission held the workshop to receive an overview of a wide range of issues from the utilities. Issues in preparing for the season include vegetation management, which can help prevent trees from hitting power lines; pre-storm inspections and hardening of transmission lines and poles; internal communications; plans to communicate with the public during and after storms; and setting restoration estimates.
The biggest and most expensive change this year could come from housing workers.
Instead of single staging areas for regions where up to 1,500 to 2,000 logistics workers meet and sleep under giant tents, separate locations that can handle 500 at a time are being planned.
Also, rather than mobile sleepers that handle 36 to 42 people, smaller sleepers will be used, along with an increased reliance on hotels.
Gwaltney noted officials have been in contact with hotel operators, as “there could definitely be a strain on the hotels.”
State Division of Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz said earlier this month that his agency has been redeveloping plans about evacuations and shelters because of the virus.
To reduce the impact on shelters, Moskowitz said evacuations outside of flood zones could take into account details of structures, with people in newer structures built under up-to-date codes given the option to remain home.
Also, state officials are looking at protocols for shelters that range from separating people based on temperature checks to non-congregated sheltering in hotels.