Hurricane Dorian Provides Real-Life Test of Upgraded Storm Systems

As Hurricane Dorian made its slow progression up Florida’s east coast in September, the state’s 21.3 million residents waited in anticipation for what the Category 5 storm would bring. While, thankfully, most of Florida was left relatively unscathed except for minor damage due to storm surge and dangerous winds, Jacksonville-based JEA was prepared for the worst. In fact, JEA was more prepared for this hurricane than ever before. As the first major hurricane of the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season, Dorian tested JEA’s upgraded storm preparation systems put in place after hurricanes Matthew and Irma, without causing widespread disruption.

Every major hurricane is an opportunity for utilities to gather performance data, assess what worked, and make improvements in advance of the next storm. JEA learned valuable lessons after being hit by two major hurricanes in 2016 and 2017, and we were able to harness those challenges into new solutions in time for Dorian.

Problems Resulting from Hurricanes Matthew and Irma

Due to power outages at water treatment plants during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, millions of gallons of sewage water were unfortunately released into area waterways. Additionally, extreme winds and weather conditions during the storm made it unsafe for JEA employees to work for a period of time. This left a number of the lift stations without power and unable to function until the weather conditions improved and JEA crews could resume work. Recreational activities such as swimming and fishing had to be barred in affected waterways until regulatory compliance limits were reached.

One year later, Hurricane Irma left nearly 280,000 JEA customers without power. And while our pace of restoration was generally applauded, we experienced criticism from some in our community—including city officials—on our post-storm customer communications efforts. Many customers reported being told by JEA that their power had been restored only to return home and find the lights still out.

JEA’s storm recovery efforts fell short of the commitment we made to our community. Needless to say, we had work to do.

Turning Challenges into Opportunities

The troubles experienced during hurricanes Matthew and Irma offered some lessons for JEA. Consequently, the utility implemented the following enhancements:

System hardening. In the past five years, JEA has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in hardening our electric, water, and sewer systems to make them more resistant to major storms. After Matthew, JEA began a multi-phased improvement process to review our wastewater system and expand backup generation plans to improve system responses. At water treatment plants and lift stations, specifically, JEA invested in hardening the electric system that services those facilities and activating mobile generators that can be deployed after a storm.

Utilize smart technology. To help restore power faster following major storms, JEA invested in new technology such as drones to better assess damage. Drone technology allowed JEA to assess the entire electric system within 24 hours after Hurricane Irma, helping us prioritize power restoration. Additionally, we continue to install new smart meters to help better pinpoint power outages at individual addresses.

Rethink customer communications plan. Many of JEA’s customers were dissatisfied with our outage communications post-Hurricane Irma. We needed to do better. JEA assembled a cross-function team of more than 20 employees to streamline our customer communications before, during, and after a storm. The result? A multi-channeled, customer-focused process, which goes into effect during a major storm event. Restoration 1-2-3 focuses on JEA’s actions during each phase of storm restoration and acknowledges the key role customers play in efforts to restore power safely and as quickly as possible when massive outages occur due to a major storm. As an added benefit, JEA’s overall storm communications plan allows us to stay in lockstep with City of Jacksonville officials and first responders.

While JEA customers fortunately did not experience widespread power disruption across our services territory as a result of Hurricane Dorian, we were able to examine new storm preparedness strategies in real time. I’m proud of how our 2,000 employees worked together, and with our city officials and sister agencies, to prepare our city for any potential impact of Hurricane Dorian. Everyone played a crucial role—from the linemen trimming tree canopies in neighborhoods ahead of the storm to our communications team disseminating Restoration 1-2-3 content across our media channels—and brought true value to our customers, community, and the environment.

Aaron Zahn is managing director and CEO with JEA, a community-owned power and water utility serving northeast Florida including the city of Jacksonville.