Wednesday, October 17, 2018
Politics

Hurricane Hermine exposes political tensions in Tallahassee

TALLAHASSEE — When Hurricane Hermine blew through Florida's capital Sept. 1, it was accompanied by a string of firsts: the first hurricane in Tallahassee in more than 30 years and in the state in 11 years; the first big storm to test the skills of Gov. Rick Scott and the city's new mayor, Andrew Gillum, and the first recovery effort staged in the age of social media.

The combination proved to be a volatile mix that unleashed a torrent of complaints that the seat of government in the third most populous state was unprepared to handle a widespread power outage. It launched a public spat between the Republican governor and the Democratic mayor over whose approach was the most responsible, and it spewed partisan politics into disaster recovery.

With winds of 65 mph and the center of the Category 1 storm just miles from the heart of downtown Tallahassee, Hermine severed power for two days to a week to more than 75,000 customers of the city's municipally owned electric system and 20,000 customers of the neighboring cooperative electric company, Talquin Electric. The primary cause of the damage: downed limbs and trees from Tallahassee's famed canopy.

Scott, who has become accustomed to crisis responses this year, quickly positioned himself as facilitator-in-chief. Beginning the first night after Hermine hit, he staged a series of public meetings with state and local officials and representatives of the state's largest utilities to discuss maximizing resources to get power restoration and debris removed.

For the first meeting, he invited Eric Silagy, CEO of the South Florida utility giant, Florida Power & Light, to talk about the crews he had available if city-run Tallahassee Utilities needed them. Silagy, the only out-of-town utility executive in the room, had flown in on his private jet. He said he had 575 personnel ready to help but warned the crews may be needed elsewhere as well.

"We do have requests right now from utilities up the eastern seaboard," said Silagy, referring to the areas Hermine hit in Georgia and the Carolinas "I've held them here to determine if there is any need. If there's not, it's perfectly fine. Not an issue. But I'm going to go ahead and probably roll them north to help others."

Tallahassee Utilities director Rob McGarrah, confident the city had engaged enough assistance from eight other utilities, did not immediately jump on the offer and told the governor that coordination with the visiting crews was important to "make sure what we're doing is safe."

The next day, St. Petersburg blogger and political operative Peter Schorsch ran with the headline "Power companies' offers of help to restore power in Tallahassee have been rebuffed."

In fact, Brian Yablonski of Gulf Power reported at the Friday meeting that his company was making at least 100 workers available and more than two dozen were already in place.

Gillum conceded on Thursday, nearly a week later, that the idea the city wouldn't accept help "is counter-intuitive," but restoring power requires Tallahassee Utility crews to be "embedded" with the outside crews to safely navigate the repair process, follow the grid design, and guarantee that line workers in the future will not be harmed by flawed connections. The city accepted only the number of additional crews it could safely accommodate, he said.

Nonetheless, the claim hit a nerve in the city that is home to some of the state's most politically connected. People toiled to clean up debris in 90-degree heat. With visible signs of utility crews scarce, many took to their cell phones, powered by car chargers, and amplified the rumor on Facebook and Twitter.

"Our Mayor gets his breeches in a wad, while someone down the chain refuses FP&L help in Lake City," wrote Daryl McLaughlin, former deputy commissioner at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, on the mayor's Facebook page on Sunday. "Questions are being asked of a Mayor who doesn't seem to be leading."

City officials explained they had previously arranged mutual aid agreements with Pensacola-based Gulf Power, an investor-owned utility, and seven municipally run utilities in Florida and other states. With 80 percent of the system disabled, two transmission lines interrupted and 17 circuits down, their crews focused first on restoring transmission lines, located along back roads and woods. When they finished that job Friday, they moved into the city to repair the distribution system, officials said.

But those messages were slow in coming to the shaken city. By the end of the weekend, reports mounted that homes for the aging, the disabled and individuals who were very ill waited for air-conditioning or were forced to rely on undependable generators. The social media barrage continued.

Gillum attempted to dispel the rumors.

"It appears that the heat has driven some to speculate wildly about what help I have accepted or rejected on behalf of the City in our effort to recuperate from this storm," he wrote on his Facebook page at 12:13 a.m. Saturday morning.

"Let me be clear," he said. "We are happy to accept any help from any person or organization that is going to accelerate the speed at which we can safely restore power to our residents."

But, he warned, coordination between the visiting aid and the city utility crews was essential. "Too much help at one time may make us feel better, but it can actually slow down progress."

With most of state government's Tallahassee workforce affected, Scott was feeling the heat, too. He began to focus on power restoration. He seized on the idea that more help clearing trees and reconnecting utility lines was needed and publicly questioned city and county efforts.

"Every business that is not open has the risk of somebody losing their job," he said. "Do everything we can that's productive."

On Saturday evening, Scott accused the city of declining assistance from the Florida Department of Transportation, announced his office had lined up "contractors from private companies that can remove downed trees and fallen tree limbs" and he gave Gillum a deadline: accept the help of private companies by 8 p.m.

To some hurricane veterans, the governor's focus was understandable but short-sighted. Tallahassee Democrat columnist Gerald Ensley called the venting of "complainers and whiners" on social media a "capital embarrassment."

The last hurricane to cripple the capital city was in 1985, he wrote, and "it took 10 days for power to be restored to 90 percent of residents. This time, it took five days for power to be restored to 90 percent of residents."

(Hurricane Wilma, a stronger storm than Hermine, pummeled much of FPL's service area in 2005 and left 6 percent of the company's customers — about 258,000 — without power for more than two weeks.)

On Sunday evening, Gillum pushed back. At a briefing with Scott, he thanked the governor for the FDOT help but called the criticism misdirected.

"I'm almost at a loss for words as to how some of this has gone," Gillum told Scott. He said he was surprised by a news release claiming the city had rejected FDOT help "while our people were working side-by-side in the field."

He said he had hoped that they could transcend politics and work together, but the "comments and press releases and tweets have been put out, in my opinion, to undermine our cooperative process."

Scott listened stoically, then pointed to a chart comparing the power outages in Leon County to counties farther from the storm's center that had fewer remaining outages.

"It's not an issue of working hard," Scott told Gillum. "It's an issue of, we've got to get results."

The governor's office later told the Associated Press that there had been a "misunderstanding" in claiming that the city had rejected the DOT assistance.

Scott told the Herald/Times his job is "to bring resources to the table. Let everybody know what the opportunities are" but, he added, "we had more power outages that took longer here than other places."

"I've never seen a governor criticize another elected official in the middle of this kind of event," Gillum told the Herald/Times. "To suggest to the press that offers of help were rejected, I take exception to that. I also recognize this governor is experiencing his first hurricane, too."

Gus Corbella, a Tallahassee lobbyist for Greenberg Traurig, penned on open letter to Gillum, suggesting that his handling of Hermine would be his legacy.

"I believe the source of many Tallahasseeans' frustration has been your unwillingness, Sir, to answer this simple question: when private utility companies (FPL, Duke, TECO, etc) offered to help our city by sending trucks, crews and expertise, did you turn down their offers and, if so, why?'' Corbella wrote Sunday on Facebook, where it received more than 250 shares.

Gillum admits that "absolutely mistakes have been made" but he says social media-fueled rumors and comments from the governor's office were "unwanted distractions."

"We don't need to manufacture anger or create sideshows," he said.

He also says for FPL, "a different agenda" was at play. The governor delayed his Friday briefing until Silagy's plane arrived, Gillum said. And the mayor said he was approached on Monday by a lobbyist for FPL who told him, "My boss is mad at you," for saying FPL was wrong to suggest that Tallahassee rejected the utility's offer. Referring to the bad publicity, the lobbyist said "we can make this go away for you."

Gillum said he replied: "You don't need to make anything go away. The damage is done. I am dealing in the effects of this lie."

FPL refused to answer questions for this story. The company has said a long-term goal is to buy out public utilities to expand its market share. Between 2013 and 2015, FPL tried and failed to purchase a portion of the municipal utility in Vero Beach. In March 2013, Silagy told the NextEra Energy Investor Conference that the company was considering "acquiring municipals and co-ops" and that Scott supported the effort because it could save consumers money.

"I've now got the governor of Florida going around to the (city-owned utilities) saying: 'Why aren't you selling yourself to FPL?' " Silagy said, according to an audio recording of the event.

Asked Thursday if he wants to see Tallahassee sell its electric utility to FPL, Scott replied: "Those are decisions that should be made locally."

Gillum and Scott both told the Herald/Times they have learned from the experience. Gillum said the city must do a "better job communicating expectations to folks" while Scott said he will urge communities to bring competing interests together "before something happens."

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