After Ian, Hillsborough commission preaches patience and more power

The lengthy electrical outages has commissioners considering how to improve the power grid.
The Hillsborough County Center building sign on E Kennedy Boulevard suffered damage when the edge Hurricane Ian passed last week.
The Hillsborough County Center building sign on E Kennedy Boulevard suffered damage when the edge Hurricane Ian passed last week. [ MATT COHEN | Times ]
Published Oct. 6, 2022

TAMPA — Hillsborough County’s post-Hurricane Ian message to its residents Thursday about yard waste could be condensed to two words: Be patient.

But, it was a communication that came after commissioners indicated their own impatience at extended power outages for their constituents following last week’s storm.

The electrical service interruptions could spark discussions between the county and Tampa Electric Co. about strengthening the power grid by burying more overhead lines.

Ian brought tropical storm force wind gusts to Hillsborough of up to 66 mph for approximately 13 hours on Sept. 28, said Tim Dudley, emergency management director. At 6 a.m. Sept. 29, Tampa Electric Co. reported nearly 223,000 Hillsborough customers without power, a number that was reduced to about 46,000 customers by 9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1.

Commissioner Harry Cohen complimented the utility’s staging and advance preparation, but said, “the bottom line is that three days into this, 20% of the people were still without power.

“Given that this storm only just grazed this area — to have 300,000 people out of power from, for us, what is not a particularly noteworthy weather event — I think it does reveal once again the weakness of our grid.”

The utility has 12,000 miles of power lines, only half of which are buried underground.

“We really have got to focus on getting the rest of these lines buried as quickly as we can,” Cohen said.

Both he and Commissioner Mariella Smith also said the utility’s online communications were faulty at the outset of the storm.

“I think people are more willing to deal with even a lengthy outage if they know when it’s going to be,” Smith said.

Tampa Electric spokesperson Cherie Jacobs acknowledged the utility’s online outage map did not load properly for some customers because of the large number of people trying to access the site. Customers were able to report outages successfully during that time, she said.

As for burying overhead lines, she said, the utility’s storm protection plan “does exactly that.”

The company’s web site describes that effort as an ongoing program to install stronger, more storm-resistant poles; improve technology and put overhead power lines underground after the utility identifies lines that “have the biggest opportunity for improvement after extreme weather.”

Dudley and commissioners preached patience when it comes to debris clean-up.

The curbside pickup of downed tree limbs and other yard debris from Ian’s winds began Thursday with two private contractors following the county’s existing collection routes.

The county estimated the contractors could pick up 300,000 to 400,000 cubic yards of debris. The collections are expected to take 30 days to complete, said Kimberly Byer, solid waste director.

By comparison, the county needed up to two months to pick-up 860,000 cubic yards of yard waste following Hurricane Irma in 2017, she said.

“Bear with us,” said Commissioner Stacy White. “This is a tremendous undertaking. It’s going to be awhile. I just want to say to the public: Be patient.”