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Nancy Smith

Trees and Power Lines: Has Coral Gables Been Entirely Honest with Its Citizens?

September 19, 2017 - 8:15am

During a special meeting last Thursday, Coral Gables city commissioners and residents took it in turn to lambaste Florida Power and Light Co. for virtually everything Hurricane Irma did to collapse and darken the sweltering Miami-Dade city.

You name it: Failure to remove a transformer from a tree, broken power poles, downed trees left tangled in power lines, crews seen "just standing around" and, of course, the big one -- slow-to-no power restoration.

All FPL's fault.

Said Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli of FPL's service, "The level of support for our existing lines has been pathetic."

I Beg to Differ

Added a stern Vice Mayor Patricia Keon to a utility official in attendance, "Go back to the people at FPL and tell them we're tired of being dependent on a monopoly and on a Public Service Commission that does not force FPL to behave ..."

The next day city attorneys fired off a letter to FPL giving the company an ultimatum: Restore the power across the city by Sunday (Sept. 17) or be subject to "a fine of $500 per day consistent with Section 2-203 of the City of Coral Gables Code and fines up to $15,000 consistent with Section 162.09, Florida Statutes."

As you might imagine, this didn't sit well with the nation's third largest electric utility. And not just because Irma affected all 35 counties and the 27,000 square miles the company serves, or that 1,000 restoration workers, including 400 vegetation crewmen, are supporting Coral Gables in the wake of this unprecedented hurricane.

It's because, of all the municipalities in Florida devastated by the big storm, Coral Gables was probably the least entitled to point fingers when the lights and air conditioning went out.

It's because -- and here's the important thing -- not once during the near 90-minute meeting did commissioners tell their residents that FPL had warned them about Coral Gables' practice of planting the wrong trees in the wrong place -- then failing to trim them -- that city vegetation policies and practices invite outage in little more than a stiff wind.

In fairness to the city, commissioners did vow to "have a serious conversation" about underground power lines when the storm is behind them. But, while that will keep the power on, it won't stop badly planted giant trees from blowing over and damaging other property.

Have a look at this video, illustrating the trees that have posed the biggest challenge to restoring power in Coral Gables.  

Residents were kept in the dark in more ways than one.

In the first place, FPL has several permits pending with the city for important infrastructure-strengthening improvements, including the installation of technology enhancements that improve outage response time and can even prevent some outages. Why pending? Why haven't these permits been hustled along?

In the second place, the weatherhead can be damaged during a storm by falling trees/branches or wind-blown debris. If this happens, the customer has to hire an electrician to repair it before the utility can reconnect power.

Most important of all, Coral Gables is a tree-canopy city -- very appealing when the sun shines. A truly aesthetic element that should -- should -- contribute to quality of living. But to make tree canopies work with overhead power lines, they have to be the right species of tree -- trees with a strong and deep root system -- planted a proper distance apart, FPL spokesperson Mark Bubriski told me last week. Unfortunately, Coral Gables' trees are massive -- some are more than 90 years old -- many, like the ficus, are nonnative and city staff are well aware of their shallow root structure.

Ficus trees can blow over in a stiff wind, never mind a Category 4 hurricane. And when they do, they block roads, hook out power lines, often crash on a nearby home. FPL needs a special crew to deal with those situations. "Sometimes they're so massive, they're over, but halfway still in the ground and in standing water," said Bubriski.

One FPL arborist said new Coral Gables trees -- date palms, for instance -- come in fully grown and are planted so close together their fronds can't be unwrapped: They're too close to the power lines.

"It can easily take one of our special crews a full day to clear and restore power to a single Coral Gables home," he said.

On Monday evening, FPL -- generally mum when threatened with a legal action --  issued this rare response to Coral Gables' letter:

We understand that it’s extremely frustrating for our customers to be without power. That said, frivolous lawsuits and ludicrous code violations that attempt to pressure us into providing preferential treatment for their City will not work. Our focus is on restoring power to all of our customers, and we will not be moved by self-entitled politicians who are looking for someone to blame for the City’s irresponsibly managed tree program. The fact is the city of Coral Gables has for many years resisted FPL’s well-documented efforts to trim trees and harden our electric system. Unfortunately for our customers in that area, they are now paying the price in terms of extended outages due to hundreds of trees that have fallen into our lines.

While we do not have a precise assessment of the number of City-owned trees that may have been improperly located, resulting in unnecessarily extensive damage to electrical equipment and extended outages for Coral Gables residents, there’s no doubt that the City’s extreme approach to trees is the cause of the problem. More importantly, it threatens the safety of the residents of Coral Gables and the lives of the lineworkers who are trying to restore power.

We have restored 97 percent of Miami-Dade, and thousands of crews are working to restore the remaining customers without power. After restoration is complete, FPL would be happy to work with the City constructively and provide them recommendations on how to avoid some of these problems from reoccurring during severe weather in the future. However, it is important to note, that numerous attempts we’ve made in the past to address the impact of the City’s dense, overgrown vegetation and tree canopy has on the reliability of their residents’ electric service has been ignored. 

It seems to me Coral Gables rolled the dice with the health, safety and welfare of their residents. Commissioners had to know what can happen after a big storm, they went through Andrew 25 years ago. One North Gables resident didn't connect the dots, but he made the most salient point to come out of Thursday's special meeting: "It's always the same ... we were three weeks without power in Andrew and two weeks without it in Wilma. ..."  

City officials need to take responsibility for their blind eye: Residents are living with the consequences of choices they made. It's that simple.

Said Bubriski, "The trouble is, there's no law against dismissing a utility's advice and planting the wrong trees in the wrong place." 

But maybe there should be.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith


READ MORE FROM SUNSHINE STATE NEWS

Irma Insurance Claims Already Near $2 Billion

Hurricane Irma Death Toll Climbs to 34

Comments

Underground system allow a the normal growing of trees, and 100% of electric power reliability

Don't blame anyone. Global warming is real. The oceans are hotter spawning more severe weather and hurricanes.

The solución for all , is an underground network system

I've been calling FPL tree trimming department for over a year on a monthly basis @ least on a quarterly basis. caal Ca

Residents stir the pot and see when you get your power on next time ! By the way form your own power company ! Many cities in the United States have their own systems. see how that works for you. The people of Puerto Rico will be out 6 months! poor coral gables, men died so power could be put on in Florida and you to whine dishonors them is rediculous. Maybe power company should have only worked their men 8 hours a day and let you be off longer !Maybe next time the massive number of linemen that came to help will STAY HOME ! Then again see how you like those apples ! I am a retired Equipment Operator with the IBEW who is a veteran of numerous hurricane restoration crews. Coral Gables Get the F...over it !

Totally agree with you. On the other hand I have to say that I have called FPL several times to have trees cut around the the polls and there customer service dept makes it so difficult they never came out to cut the trees. I do not live in Coral Gables I am in Hallandale Beach, I have very happy with the way FPL and everyone else came to help us. But what I am saying is that when people call FPL regarding the problems with the trees they should come out. The poor linemen went through hell to be able to repair our lights because of the trees. I am so grateful that they were able to fix lights but it would have been much easier for then if those trees had been cut before hand.

Fpl will trim the trees away from the line, minimaly. At that pointwhomever owns the tree should be properly trimming and maintaining to keep away from the lines. FPL is here to provide and maintain power and the equipment, not residence trees.

When Sandy hit the Northeast it was only a tropical storm when it made landfall. New Jersey power lost 1.3 million customers and it took them 15 days to get everyone back in power. And I think they did a good job. Fpl had 4.4 million people out of power and it took less than two weeks. And we are whining! Interesting

All discussion of trees and underground lines aside, one problem FPL has not satisfactorily addressed is their inadequate information systems. Their website experienced extended disruptions, and the data about individual outage cases was laughable ("Crew arrived" during several days, "Power restored" during a continuing outage). They should also be more transparent and expose the cause of failure in each documented case.

I live in Pinecrest where we have a similar tree policy to Coral Gables. I have called FPL several times regarding trees in the power lines behind my house as tree companies will not touch them. They sent people (contractors) out but did nothing. Now the tree is on the ground along with all the FPL equipment just inches from my house. FPL can't point the finger either.

Why should FPL have to do what you are responsible for? I pay for what I have to, you should do the same, you cannot have to use the money I pay to FPL for doing your landscaping!!!

Who does the trees belong to?

I believe the city's emphasis on trees over safety has turned Coral Gables from the City Beautiful into the City Dangerous. Large and dangerous trees that are not properly maintained either by the City, property owners or easement holders, such as cable providers and FPL, jeopardize the health, safety and lives of its residents. Vines, branches and foliage in the power lines and cables cause power outages and even fires, which endanger young and old alike. As can be noted with regard to the recent and scandalous Hollywood nursing home incident, the elderly particularly in the Gables suffer greatly when their power and AC's are out, especially for an extended period. Their lives are placed in jeopardy and for what, a "protected tree." How pretty? Large ficus or banyan trees can level a home causing injury, death and destruction. Without proper maintenance by the owners, the trees can become overgrown, unbalanced or diseased, and the city not monitoring or enforcing its own ordinances accordingly allow these wonders of nature to become potential lethal weapons of mass destruction to adjacent property owners as well as renters or even the owners and their own families residing on the very property to which the offending tree belongs. What can and should be done? If adjacent property owners object to said tree and want it trimmed or removed, their complaints should be heard and acted upon and enforced by the municipality or governmental agency empowered to act for the benefit of its citizens. Or, if current ordinances do not suffice, enact ones that will protect the residents. Although, to date, any objections or complaints appear to go unheeded by the applicable parties.

Heart's a-bleedin' for Coral Gables, those po' folks.

Blame FPL. Fun and easy - problem solved! Next?

In the future, cities and towns in Florida, especially, those that are prone to hurricanes, should have a new ordinance by banning trees near power lines, to avoid any more power outages, or ban above-ground powerlines, by putting them underground, to save electricity for its businesses, especially for hospitals, during an emergency, or attractions like the Walt Disney World that draw lots of people. In the future, in the state of Florida, above ground power lines should be illegal, to protect its residents, businesses, and attractions, especially during a hurricane, and FPL should be fined for installing above ground power lines.

This column is a paid advertisement to FPL. How much you have been paid directly or indirectly? Let it be blear. Uder the franchise agreement with FPL te city and its resident waved any and every rights around the power cables and FPL has right to put cables almost wherever they wants. Under the contract, again, this is a contractual obligation, its is FPL job to maintain the lines and can cut, trim trees the way they see fit without intervention of the city and its residents. FPL is in breach of the contract. On the other hand I am not sure the resident of the city knows what it is in the agreement and knows that they have no say what and how FPL can cut to provide the services. They might be shocked the unrestricted power they has delegated to them.

Floods will cause power outages to underground line? This is crap. If this were true you'd have people getting electrocuted every time it rains. Name me a flood event that cut power in the last 20 years? I live in a neighborhood with underground lines and we've never lost power because of flooding. We only lose power during hurricanes because ultimately our lines connect to an above ground line with your usual $20 piece of crap wooden pole fpl uses.

I have underground power, and sometime last year FP&L had to be called by our alert neighbors during a very wet part of the year, turns out the underground wires got flooded and started to burn. A section of the line had to be uncovered and replaced. Just saying that there are pitfalls to both above ground and below ground wiring. No perfect solution.

Miami Beach had flooding this year and lost power! Check you facts!

U are so smart..wow

Jeff, educate yourself on the subject before you speak. You sound so stupid.

Jeff is correct, underground is the worst in a major storm, trees have roots, hard to detect problems and we get highly corrosive saltwater here. It was last to be restored after Andrew. This is all a big ploy by Coral Gables and Pinecrest to get other taxpayers to pay for the underground power they don't want to pay for themselves.

Ask the people in New York about their great underground system during and after hurricane Mathew

This article was written by fpl. Also they have their internet trolls writing comments on this thread. The truth is 91.5 percent of miami-dade lost power. How have they improved anything since Andrew? This was the same crap all over again. Btw, solar power is useless when power goes because fpl pushed laws to keep you from being able to disconnect from their grid and because of this you are not allowed to use your solar power during an outage as it will endanger their work crews. Ain't they crafty.

People were out of lights for eight weeks during Andrew. I know I was one of them. Irma had many more people out of lights then Andrew. I would say there has been a great improvement. People have short memories.

Another stupid comment. You can switch that huge main breaker in your panel anytime you want Jeff and leave the grid you hate so much. Go ahead, use all the solar and wind you want. Make your own power. Nobody is stopping you.

Actually...FPL has stopped you from doing exactly this. Under the laws FPL lobbyists have basically written, and which are among the most restrictive in the country, you can’t go off grid. Even if you have a full solar installation you need to be connected to the FPL grid and your system has to power down in an outage.

Bill is right. FPL's anti-solar mania is real. They sponsored a fake solar amendment last year and they lobbied to force customers NOT to be allowed to use their solar panels during a grid outage. Plainly, they're terrified of a decentralized grid arising and they don't want to buy power from their customers at a parity rate, so FPL can continue to charge rate payers in a Florida for big ticket projects that'll never be built, like new reactors at Turkey Point. I hope Elon Musk's gigafactory makes home batteries affordable and leads many Floridians to cut the cord from FPL, but long before then, voters need to stop voting for the Republicans who slavishly lick the boots of their FPL masters and screw rate payers. Oh, btw, FPL hiked rates by almost a billion dollars just in the last year. Enjoy!

There are 57 electric utility providers in the state of Florida. FPL is by far the least expensive. In fact their rates are 35% below the national average. That is a fact. Be careful what you wish for

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