Old Florida roots run deep for underground projects and storm preparations
May 13, 2024
Michael Flowers is part of FPL's Storm Secure Undergrounding Program

Port Charlotte, Fla. - Michael Flowers still visits his family’s historic fish camp, a small home sitting on stilts in the waters of Bull Bay. The 1936 home hasn’t been immune to the wrath of hurricanes, but each time the camp was destroyed, Flowers rebuilt it stronger than before. He’s committed to doing the same with his hometown in Charlotte County.

“I understand how important it is to prepare for hurricanes. I’ve been here my whole life, just like my father before me, and my whole family’s still here,” he said.

His dedication involves better preparing his hometown’s energy grid for severe weather while also improving day-to-day electric service reliability. He is part of a 30-strong Florida Power & Light Company (FPL) team that has been fortifying the county for years, undergrounding neighborhood power lines along Florida’s west coast.

“The cool thing about living in this area is you can go ten minutes this way (west) and you're on the water close to the Gulf. If you go ten minutes that way (east), I can be in the woods where there's no houses around,” the Punta Gorda native said.

However, that same location between the sea and wooded areas has made southwest Florida prone to many hurricanes in the past three decades.

The fourth-largest storm to strike Florida was Hurricane Ian, which made landfall in southwest Florida in September 2022 and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage.

While FPL has been undergrounding neighborhood power lines for years, Hurricane Ian showed how beneficial the program has been for customers.

As part of the company’s Storm Secure Underground Program (SSUP), Flowers helps FPL underground power lines in areas with a history of outages during storms and from falling vegetation.

Starting in 2018 as a pilot program before becoming a full-time program in 2022, SSUP focuses on neighborhood lines, typically located in customers’ backyards where lines are most susceptible to trees and other vegetation. So far, FPL has finished more than 2,000 neighborhood projects across the state and undergrounded more than 150 neighborhood lines in Charlotte County.

 

 

For most, Flowers is the first person homeowners interact with before undergrounding begins. When letters arrive informing homeowners of a project, his name is signed at the bottom. And he often finds himself answering calls on his personal phone from FPL customers.    

He’s also a familiar name because most locals either know him or his family. The Flowers’ livelihood is etched into the very fabric of Punta Gorda’s commercial fishing routes and cattle industry.

He remembers how the sun beat down relentlessly, as he grew okra and black-eyed peas as a child. In the summers, his father employed him, his brothers and friends to bail hay and operate the family tractor.

“I end up seeing customers that I know personally,” said Flowers, who has worked for FPL for 28 years. “They’re glad we finally made it to their neighborhood.”

During Hurricane Ian, FPL found underground power lines performed significantly better than overhead lines – and they’re more than 50% more reliable on a day-to-day basis. Neighborhoods are selected for undergrounding based on data driven criteria approved by the Florida Public Service Commission, designed to prioritize areas that can most benefit from undergrounding.

Recently, FPL began an underground project along Taylor Lane Northwest in Port Charlotte, a neighborhood impacted by Ian. Even though most homes sport new roofs and polished front yards, reminders of the destruction left behind remain in a few houses with blue tarps.

“We were in the eye wall for hours, 150 mph-plus winds,” homeowner Gary Ogle recalled. “This place looked like a bomb hit it. Roofs were off. Cars were upside down. It was just awful.”

In general, the leading cause of outages is trees and vegetation falling into power lines – and Ogle’s neighborhood is lined with oak trees.

He was without power for eight days as restoration crews worked to safely remove debris, trees and vegetation from overhead power lines, before fixing them safely and as quickly as possible.

“I can't be any more excited. We're looking forward to the power lines now being under my feet here,” Ogle said.

Once it’s complete, the Taylor Lane Northwest project will serve more than 2,400 customers. By the end of the year, Charlotte County will have an additional 100 neighborhood lines underground.

Flowers’ goal is to harden all neighborhood lines.

Just as his forebears carved their living from the rugged Florida wilderness, Flowers now fortifies the backbone of modern life here – the energy grid. He’s looking forward to bringing the program’s benefits to many more Florida homes for decades to come.

“This has been the best project I've worked on. The numbers prove that we are much more reliable,” Flowers said. “It also means quicker restoration times, less customers without power to begin with and less crews in the area to restore power. All of that adds up to money savings for our customers.”