Manny Miranda and R. David Paulison both grew up in South Florida. They grew up with the threat and reality of hurricanes. Both were here in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew cut a deadly swath through Miami-Dade County, Paulison as the chief of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue and Miranda overseeing the electrical power restoration in the communities devastated by Andrew.
Thirteen years after Andrew, when Hurricane Wilma became the most intense cyclone formed in the Atlantic Ocean, they were in new leadership positions on the front lines of the response throughout South Florida. Wilma wasn't as powerful as Andrew, but she was much larger in size and capped off a historic two-year run of storms slamming into the U.S. -- mainly Florida. Wilma remains one of the five costliest hurricanes to hit the country, and it ushered in changes at the federal agency responsible for emergency response as well as how South Florida's electric utility protects its grid to withstand major storms better.
Miranda says he remembers the moment he realized things had to change for FPL's grid. It was in the hours after Hurricane Wilma sped across the Everglades, hitting Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties 10 years ago. The previous two years had been very busy for Miranda and FPL. Four Category 3 or higher storms had hit Florida. Wilma was the worst. It knocked out power to millions of FPL's customers. More than 10,000 power poles were damaged. Thirty steel towers carrying a transmission line between Miami-Dade and Broward fell. More than 200 substations were knocked out. Six million South Floridians were left without power.
It was dark out when Miranda left his home and headed to FPL's office after Wilma. Traffic lights were out. Power lines were lying on the road and Miranda remembers thinking, "We've got to change. We were all exhausted after all the hurricanes, and our customers had also weathered a very tough time. We knew we had to take some progressive steps."
The power company launched an effort involving inspecting all of FPL's power poles, replacing failing poles, stepping up tree trimming and installing new technology with the aim of reducing the threat of major power outages after big storms like Wilma. FPL has spent an estimated $2 billion of customers' money to harden its system. According to the Palm Beach Post, FPL has 23 percent more concrete power poles today than it did when Wilma hit. The company has replaced ceramic insulators with polymer insulators. In Wilma, more than 5,000 concrete poles had cracked ceramic insulators. The new polymer insulators provide more flexibility for power lines when winds pick up.
The effort is referred to as hardening - shoring up the electrical grid to withstand Mother Nature better.
It was on an airport tarmac in Memphis when R. David Paulison learned that President George W. Bush wanted to talk to him about taking over the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Just two weeks earlier Hurricane Katrina had flooded New Orleans and laid waste to many communities on the Gulf Coast. FEMA was being heavily criticized for the lack of coordinated response. Paulison was an emergency management veteran and knew FEMA, having worked at the agency since 2001.
He returned to Washington, D. C., spoke with the president and took the job after, he said, telling President Bush he wanted to bring in his own team of emergency management specialists. "It had been a dumping ground for people who worked on the campaigns of presidents. We did not have the right staff. The front office did not have experienced emergency managers. People were making decisions who didn't have a clue about hurricanes or about disasters."
Paulison won't go as far as saying his agency's response to Wilma helped save FEMA a few months later when it was under congressional attack. However, he thinks few people know how close FEMA was to being dissolved. In 2006, a Senate committee's report on the local, state and federal response to Katrina found "FEMA was unprepared for a catastrophic event of the scale of Katrina." With that storm, Paulison cites "the failure at the local level to call for an evacuation" as a leading contributor to the response failings.
"I knew we had to do something with FEMA ," he said recently from his home in Broward County. "FEMA has been a reactive organization. You have to wait for a presidential declaration to a governor before FEMA is allowed to spend money. That model does not work in a catastrophic event."
One change has been an expedited major disaster declaration. A governor can now request federal help without waiting for a damage assessment from a major disaster. Paulison said that helps get resources in place such as shelters before a major storm hits.