After Hurricane Ian, residents and businesses in Southwest Florida waited patiently for power, cable, and the internet to be restored. Though they wore tool belts rather than capes, line workers and utility workers became neighborhood superheroes.
For some property owners, the wait for utility companies lasted only a day or two. For others it was two weeks or longer. Utility companies follow the recovery guidelines outlined in their contingency plans. For example, FPL begins repairing power plants and damaged transmission lines and substations. Then power is restored to critical facilities such as hospitals, police and fire stations, communications facilities and water treatment plants. Next, teams are working to restore service to the greatest number of customers in the shortest amount of time, including retail centers, neighborhoods and business centers along major thoroughfares. Finally, FPL is aimed at smaller groups and individual properties.
Winds from Hurricane Ian snapped power poles and downed trees on transmission lines. Transformers were burned out by lightning and electrical surges. Flood damaged substations and electrical components.
Widespread power, cable, and internet outages renewed a discussion that arises after every tropical storm and hurricane: Why aren’t all utility lines buried underground in Southwest Florida? Water and sewer lines appear to be underground and remain mostly operational after storms when the facilities maintain power. However, other utilities still rely on a network of wooden or metal poles, transmission wires, cables, and connections that often fail during hurricanes.
There are a variety of reasons we still rely on overhead power lines, including:
· Cost: Some estimates suggest that underground lines are up to ten times more expensive to install than overhead lines. Consumers foot that bill, whether it’s through tax assessments, higher monthly bills, or connection fees.
· Installation: Overhead lines can be installed quickly, often using the existing infrastructure. Meanwhile, underground utilities require extensive digging and directional drilling that maneuvers around trees, roads, sidewalks, culverts and structures.
· Troubleshooting: It is easier to identify and fix problem areas in overhead lines. Underground repairs require extensive digging and heavy equipment to locate the cause of a failure.
Many proposed residential communities in Southwest Florida are designed with all utilities underground. Aesthetically, underground utilities offer a cleaner look—out of sight, out of mind. The real benefit comes after a hurricane. All homes and businesses can lose power, cable, or internet service due to outages on main or feeder lines, but restoration teams can make one repair to restore an entire neighborhood rather than going street by street to complete repairs.
FPL, the country’s largest electric utility, launched its Storm Secure Underground Program in 2018 to “improve the reliability of service to our customers in fair and inclement weather.” As of 2021, FPL had completed approximately 600 neighborhood projects under the program. Overall, FPL estimates that approximately 45% of its distribution system is underground.
Hurricane Ian wasn’t the first storm to ignite the surface versus underground debate, and it won’t be the last. It has taken generations to build our region’s utility infrastructure, and slowly but surely we will see less of that infrastructure…because it will be buried underground.
Richard E. Brylanski, PE, is Senior Vice President and Director of Land Development at Hole Montes, a growing firm of engineers, landscape architects, planners and surveyors. For more information, visit HoleMontes.com or call 239-254-2000 (Naples office) or 239-985-1200 (Fort Myers office).