In the midst of a pandemic, the last thing we need to worry about is a natural disaster. But hurricane season is here – and it’s shaping up to be serious. Tropical Storm Cristobal, which made landfall 500 miles from Orlando in early June, spawned tornados that damaged property, displaced about 50 residents and caused more than 5,000 outages in our service territory.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts an “above normal” Atlantic hurricane season, with 13 to 19 named storms. Let’s all hope NOAA’s 2020 predictions fall short, but let’s also prepare for the possibility that even one powerful hurricane striking Central Florida could be devastating – particularly if our community remains in the grasp of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the General Manager & CEO of OUC – The Reliable One, I’m urging customers in West Orlando to prepare now for a big storm. And this year, my sense of urgency is significantly heightened. In addition to concerns about renewed panic buying in the face of an oncoming storm, I’m worried that the COVID-19 crisis could disrupt OUC’s ability to assemble the kind of workforce we’ve had in the past to help respond to widespread outages through mutual aid.
Just as emergency responders join forces to rebuild communities devastated by natural disasters, OUC and other utilities rely on mutual aid, where line workers and other electric and water utility personnel from across the country come together to restore power and water. In 2017, after Category 3 Hurricane Irma disrupted power to 60% of our customers, we restored all 240,000 of them in six days with support from hundreds of crews from 20 states.
There’s no doubt that this hurricane season, the pandemic will pose obstacles to responding to a widespread outage. But OUC is prepared – and we will rise to the challenge if a hurricane strikes here. We are already working closely with partners, including the Florida Municipal Electric Association (a trade organization of 33 state municipal utilities) on hurricane preparedness and mutual aid response. However, despite this preparation, restoring power to our customers will take longer because of precautions we must put in place to protect crews from COVID-19.
Should a storm hit us during the pandemic, we will continue to observe social distancing practices as we restore power. We will also ensure that our teams and those from other utilities are supplied with appropriate personal protective equipment. I ask that if you want to thank the crews as they work in your neighborhood, please do so from a safe distance of at least six feet.
Over the years, OUC has taken steps to make the energy grid more resilient. We’ve invested in smart grid technology that lessens the impact of outages, trimmed trees near our power lines and hardened the infrastructure supporting the grid. Our line crews, power generation teams and support staff are trained to work through hurricanes. As your hometown utility, we stand ready day and night – in good times and bad – to keep the lights on and water running.
You can do your part, too, by preparing early. If you notice trees that may interfere with power lines, call us at 407-423-9018 and we’ll send a crew to inspect and trim them. The next time you’re at the store, pick up an extra pack of batteries and a few gallons of bottled water. The start of hurricane season is also the perfect reminder to make sure your information is current on OUC.com. Consider signing up for outage alerts and following us on social media. Instructions and other hurricane preparedness resources are available at www.ouc.com/stormcenter.
Anyone who’s lived in West Orlando or the surrounding area for any length of time knows the drill when Central Florida is in the path of a storm. But this year, waiting until a hurricane is headed our way won’t cut it. So please take this storm season seriously … start your planning now … and together, we’ll get through it as a community. Please stay safe and be well.
Clint Bullock is the General Manager & CEO of the Orlando Utilities Commission. Established in 1923 by a special act of the Florida Legislature, OUC—The Reliable One is the second largest municipal utility in Florida. OUC provides electric and water services to more than 250,000 customers in Orlando, St. Cloud and parts of unincorporated Orange and Osceola counties.