Each major storm or hurricane works its way into the psyches of those who experienced it a little differently. As a veteran utility worker, I have been involved in a lot of initiatives related to storms, whether on the preparation, the rebuild or now on the reporting side.

The first storm I worked was a really nasty ice storm that hit Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., in the winter of 1973. As an intern from Georgia Tech, my managers couldn’t give me any duties where I might hurt myself or others, so I was shipped off to the Forsyth call center. My first day on the job, we were told to tell all callers that their power would be back on in three days. My duties consisted of taking the calls, and writing the addresses and contact information received on 3×8 cards and sending the cards down this little conveyor belt system, where they would disappear behind a wall and into another room. Looking back, I have this sneaking suspicion that there might have been a trash can on the other side of that wall.

As the week wore on, I noticed that the calls we received from customers who had survived six or seven days without power were a lot frostier than the calls received earlier, especially since we had already overpromised and underdelivered. One morning, I just couldn’t take the irate calls any longer and abandoned my post. I just walked away. It wasn’t my brightest moment, but not everyone is suited for the call center life.

Probably the worst hurricane season, at least for Floridians, was in 2004 when this one state was lashed by Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. Although none of these storms delivered what I would call “a knockout punch,” the amount of work required to bring Florida back and functioning was monumental. I would classify this quartet of storms as the never-ending rebuild. I talked to IBEW crews that essentially made a summer of going from storm to storm to storm. The utilities and crews did a phenomenal job of working the supply chain, both with crews and with materials and supplies. It was in covering this storm that I realized that our industry never quits. Never.

I am still haunted by some of what I saw during the rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, which hit land between Mississippi and Louisiana back in 2005. Maybe I have a little post-traumatic stress disorder working here, because some of what I saw and heard and smelled, I have yet to be able to share. From Katrina, we learned about the character of a man under stress. I personally learned that intrinsically good people behave even better in a crisis, and intrinsically bad people behave even worse. Some really bad people crawled out from under rocks to take advantage of suffering people. Thank God for the National Guard.

I had a quite different take on Hurricane Ike, which bore down on Galveston and Houston, Texas, U.S., in 2008. Ike had one massive footprint and found large pines to its liking. I had one lady show me the carnage in her yard, stating that before Ike she had 13 pine trees, but now she had only one-and-ahalf pines still standing. Because Ike selected Texas and Texas alone for its target, I spent all my time in this state and found out just how resilient and tough Texans are. Ike was no match for a state whose citizens are not looking for handouts and who have a “get ’er done” attitude. Tough storm, tougher Texans.

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy left its own calling card. It hit so many states and left so much carnage in so wide a region that this event truly had a regional effect. Now, a year later, if I could share one common theme from those who suffered, it would be “never again.” Because Hurricane Irene had hit the same geographical area the year before but with less severity, the populace was already at wits’ end in dealing with power outages. But “never again” requires that customers, legislators, regulators and utilities come to a common consensus of how to move forward. Utilities in most regions, took the lead and proposed comprehensive storm preparation, hardening and restoration investments to their state regulators.

Of course, we will continue to experience damage when storms hit, but we should never again have to live through three-week outages if we do the right things now. The following are actions utilities are proposing to regulators.

Florida Power & Light

Florida, the state that experiences hurricanes almost annually, maintains constant vigilance and preparedness. FPL recently filed its 2013-2015 Electric Infrastructure Storm Hardening Plan with the Florida Public Service Commission on May 1. The company expects to invest $428 million to $646 million over the next three years to fulfil its proposed plan:

  • Prioritize hardening for critical facilities and other essential community needs. Since 2007, FPL has been strengthening infrastructure serving hundreds of critical facilities and other essential community needs such as hospitals, police and fire stations, and grocery stores. FPL plans to continue this effort by strengthening poles and equipment serving approximately 250 to 370 critical facilities and community needs in 2013 through 2015, with the goal of completing all critical and community-need hardening throughout its territory in 2016, several years earlier than FPL’s 2010-2012 plan.
  • Accelerate the deployment of wind-resilient transmission structures and equipment. Between 2007 and 2012, to strengthen the electricity-delivery backbone, FPL replaced more than 4,000 wood transmission structures with stronger concrete structures and upgraded more than 3,600 ceramic post insulators with more resilient polymer material. Beginning in 2013, FPL is accelerating this ongoing program with plans to replace an estimated 1,100 to 1,600 structures per year through 2015 and complete replacement of all ceramic posts on concrete structures by the end of 2014.
  • Strengthen key equipment located in areas most vulnerable to storm surge. As part of initiatives arising from lessons learned from Superstorm Sandy, FPL plans to install real-time waterlevel monitoring systems to help anticipate challenges that could result from flooding at 25 substations located below the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 100-year flood elevations. Utilities in the Sandy zone are taking similar steps.

Consolidated Edison

In New York City, Con Edison, in its 2013 rate filings, proposed its “Fortifying the Future” initiative to address the weaknesses exposed by Superstorm Sandy. This storm was the largest coastal storm in New York harbor in 100 years and was the most damaging storm in Con Edison’s 120-year history. In response to the storm, Con Edison is exploring approximately $1 billion in storm-protection measures:

  • $100 million to reconfigure network boundaries to separate flood and non-flood areas
  • $40 million to make 460-V equipment submersible to withstand flooding
  • $40 million to make all 120/208-V equipment submersible to withstand flooding and $25 million to make all future purchases of underground equipment submersible
  • $60 million to upgrade overhead distribution circuit equipment
  • $200 million to relocate selected overhead lines underground
  • $165 million to harden electric and steam production facilities with new walls and flood barriers
  • $240 million to harden 13 substations in low-lying areas against the possibility of flood damage
  • $6.4 million to protect customers’ gas equipment from flooding through gas valve installations
  • $100 million to harden gas system facilities including tunnels, piping in flood zones, and installation of regulator vent float check valves for high-pressure gas customers in flood zones.

Public Service Electric and Gas Co.

In New Jersey, PSE&G recently proposed to its regulators to invest $3.9 billion during the next 10 years to proactively protect and strengthen its electric and gas systems against increasingly frequent severe weather conditions. In a filing with the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, PSE&G asked for initial funding approval of $2.6 billion during the first five years to meet its key provisions:

  • $1.7 billion to raise, relocate or protect all switching and substations affected by recent storms as well as those in newly designated flood zones
  • $1.04 billion to replace and modernize 750 miles (1,207 km) of low-pressure cast-iron gas mains in or near flood areas
  • $454 million to deploy smart grid technologies to better monitor system operations to increase PSE&G’s ability to more swiftly deploy repair teams
  • $215 million to improve pole distribution systems l $200 million to create redundancy in the system, reducing outages when damage occurs
  • $60 million to move 20 miles (32 km) of overhead electric distribution lines underground l $140 million to protect nine natural gas metering stations and a liquefied natural gas station affected by Sandy or located in flood zones.

In all the storms I’ve worked or covered, electric utilities respond quickly and appropriately. We know that storm restoration and hardening takes solid planning, drilling and execution, but it also takes a substantial investment. And this is where the citizens and the regulators come into play. Customers ultimately pay for the service they receive. And it makes more sense to pay a lesser amount upfront to develop a flexible, more easily rebuilt system than to pay after the fact to simply put back up what just came down.

Yes, Sandy and sister storms have worked their way into our psyche. Now, if our regulators will support our utilities, we will build more resilient systems that will reduce the indignity we suffer when major storms come our way.