Restoring power after a storm: Inside the “mini cities” of recovery
June 26, 2023

Thunderous echoes of Hurricane Ian rumble in the distance as Joel Garcia kisses his wife and 7-year-old son goodbye, unsure of when he will see them again. His love for them lingers as he navigates slick, debris-covered roadways. His drive provides initial views into the damage from the storm and reminds him of the mission ahead.

“It’s those moments after a storm where people hit that switch and the lights don’t come on. That’s the uncertainty,” said Garcia. “It’s not a matter of if power will come back, but customers immediately want to know when.”

Garcia is all too familiar with the task ahead. For more than a decade, he’s helped bring light back to darkened communities across the state as part of Florida Power & Light Company’s restoration workforce.

Upon arriving at a staging site, a temporary FPL work location outside of immediate impact zones, Garcia joins what he calls a symphony of activity. Dedicated line workers have gathered from near and far, each fueled by a shared purpose: restoring power safely and as quickly as possible.

“Staging sites operate like mini cities,” he said. “They’re the hub of everything we do during restoration.”

Sites are strategically set up in areas closest to the damage depending on a storm's path. Many live on the properties of local airports or fairgrounds. These sites not only provide out of state crews with an area to store equipment and trucks, but also offer a place to recharge after each 16-hour workday. Hot meals, laundry services and mobile sleeper units accommodate any number of workers from under 100 people to upwards of 1,800.

An army of FPL employees across the company’s many business units unite by taking on various roles to keep the operation running smoothly. When Garcia isn’t responding to a storm, he’s an engineering manager for FPL’s major projects and construction services.  

“Lawyers can be found washing uniforms and bedding, while software engineers wear aprons as they serve dinner to crews,” Garcia added.

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As a section chief, Garcia’s main role is to assign crews to restore the company's power grid based on outage reports. He and his team can pinpoint the exact neighborhoods in need of power and what materials are needed to get customers back online.

 “We leverage the latest technology like drones to patrol our circuits and provide insight into the damage and work required,” he said. “The images collected are uploaded and made available to the staging site teams, so they know exactly what is needed to restore service.”

But this wasn’t always the way. Garcia recalls how much has changed on the technology front over the last 14 years.

“Before, we would send patrollers out with pen and paper to write things down,” Garcia said with wide eyes. “Eliminating a lot of that manual labor and building out our smart grid is part of how we trim restoration times down year after year.”

How power is restored

While systems have changed, the process FPL uses to restore power has not. FPL starts by repairing damage to main power lines responsible for critical facilities such as hospitals and 911 centers.

This also helps restore power to the heart of communities, helping get life back to normal. Shortly after, communities are able to once again use main throughfares, traffic signals, supermarkets and gas stations. FPL simultaneously moves into neighborhoods, where service is restored to the largest number of customers in the shortest amount of time.

Finally, once the larger repairs have been made, power is restored to smaller groups with FPL converging on the hardest-hit areas until every customer’s power is restored.

“No system is hurricane-proof and storms will result in power outages, but our continued investments to make our grid stronger, smarter and more storm-resilient help us restore power safely and quickly to all customers following a storm,” said Manny Miranda, executive vice president of power delivery.

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Those investments proved valuable during the 2022 hurricane season, where smart grid technology helped avoid more than 550,000 outages. Following Hurricane Ian, the fourth-strongest storm to ever impact Florida, the FPL team restored more than two-thirds of its affected customers after just one day of the storm exiting the state.

“FPL doesn’t stop. The one thing every storm has is a learning opportunity and we take that wholeheartedly,” Garcia added. “It keeps me inspired and believing in what I do.”

Garcia represented FPL at the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce’s 24th annual HealthCare Heroes awards luncheon, where first responders were paid a special tribute for their hard work during Ian.

“I’m very humbled, but I would be remiss if I didn’t think back to all of the other employees alongside me, in addition to all of the first responders, making sure service is restored to bring back normalcy to our neighbors and community,” he said.

But for Garcia, the most rewarding feeling is driving home to his wife and son after spending countless days at a staging site.

“As I'm driving home, I can see how the community is returning to normal after a storm,” Garcia said with a smile. “That’s why we hold our heads up high after these restoration events, and we can say we work for the best utility in the nation.”