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The Sunshine Economy

In Hard-Hit Keys, Power Was Restored Within Days After Hurricane Irma. Why?

Jerry Lieberman
Keys Energy Services
The transmission line from the mainland was re-energized on Sept. 12, three days after the Keys lost power during Hurricane Irma.

Even though the Lower Florida Keys took a direct hit from Hurricane Irma, the storm did not disconnect the Keys power line to the mainland.

Much of Key West, at the end of the line, had power within days of the storm — much faster than many places on the mainland, which had much weaker winds from Irma.

Keys Energy Services is the publicly-owned utility that provides power from the Seven Mile Bridge to Key West. On Wednesday, Sept. 20, WLRN's Nancy Klingener spoke to Julio Torrado, the utility's director of communications. Here is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation, in which he explains the utility's year-round maintenance strategy and how that may have contributed to quicker power restoration:

Torrado: The transmission line, which is the main source of our power from the mainland, went out for all customers at 11:05 p.m. on Sept. 9. 

Credit Dale Finigan / Keys Energy Services
Keys Energy Services
Knowing that it is in a marine environment in a hurricane zone, Keys Energy Services works on storm-hardening its system year-round.

All of our customers were without power as of that point. Our transmission line was re-energized on Sept. 12, so we started getting power from the mainland. Our backbone feeder, as you call that transmission line, did not sustain any major damage, which is a good thing. And on that same day we were able to get three priority feeders [turned] on in Key West, which feed the hospital, the airport area and the major grocery store shopping centers. So the residences that happen to be along those neighborhoods or in those neighborhoods were also lucky to get power at that time. A couple of days after the storm our power was back on. 

So a Category 4 storm did not sever the tieline. 

It did not. I always talk about storm-hardening our system all year and it's not a really sexy topic, but a lot of our poles are rated to essentially withstand a Category 5 hurricane. We're constantly out there improving our system doing a lot of tree trims, although in this case a lot of whole trees came down, so that kind of didn't help us in that regard. But the fact that we stay on top of that maintenance and improve our system helped us to weather the storm well. I mean, it went right through our service area up there on Big Pine and Cudjoe [keys.] So it was a direct hit as far as we're concerned. 

Why has power been restored to most of the Keys so much more quickly than the mainland when we were the ones that really got the brunt of the storm?

You know, I can't speak to their processor system. We are constantly in the mode of hardening our system, of making it stronger. I think you guys always see in the community our tree-trimmers out there trimming trees back from power lines. Those are really the main causes of power outages. When those tree limbs come down or they whack into power lines, that's what's taking the power out. So we stay on top of it.

Obviously, we are in the Florida Keys. It's like hurricane alley down here. So we try to make sure that we're constantly on top of it. I'm not saying that those folks on the mainland are not. They have larger service areas and their own issues to deal with. But we know that we are in a marine environment with a lot of salt water around us and a lot of trees to deal with and we're constantly doing studies and improvements to our system to make sure we can weather these storms, and it's proven that we have.

Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN
Some of the system's concrete poles did break. An estimated four transmission poles and 300 distribution poles went down in the storm.

Some of the concrete poles in the Lower Keys certainly went over. Was that just because of the force of the storm or they got hit by trees?

Can't say if it was hit by trees or anything. I would say it's the force of storms. I have seen some that have snapped at the top where they had large transformer banks. When you have those types of poles there's a weight distribution [issue] and it might make it easier to snap. I've not seen a lot of them go down, but we did have some and they'll be replaced. We're putting a lot of new ductile iron poles in and those are rated to Category 5 strength, as are a lot of the concrete poles, too. Some of those [that break] might just be age or the stress points on them. But all in all our system did very well. I believe we had about four transmission poles go down and around 300 distribution poles. Those are the poles in the neighborhoods that actually bring power to your home and business. 

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.