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Economy Could Hurt Hurricane Preparedness

The stormy Florida economy could cloud power companies’ ability to deal with major hurricanes this year, the state's largest electric and phone companies told the Public Service Commission Wednesday.

The issue came up during the commission's annual workshop on hurricane preparedness, during which 12 companies presented their storm management plans to the PSC. Each said they were prepared for the worst, but hoping for the best in the upcoming hurricane season.

But several of the big power players acknowledged that in the event of a major storm, the economic downtown could make finding outside help restoring service harder than it used to be.

"As utilities have had less work because of the slowdown in the economy, they in turn have laid off some of their contractors," said Andy McQuagge, power services delivery manager for Gulf Power, which powers most of the western Panhandle.

"The contractor does not have work, they turn around and lay off some of their employees, so some of your major independent contractors that may have had several thousands resources available in the southeast may only have a few hundred," McQuagge continued.

And that would have consequences for Florida utilities. Florida electricity companies are members of the Southeastern Electric Exchange regional mutual assistance group, and get lots of help from neighboring states, McQuagge said. But independent contractors are still necessary to quickly restore service in an emergency.

"We'll probably have to go further out to get resources," he told the PSC. "I think that would be a concern for the entire industry, not just for Gulf Power."

Jason Cutliffe, director of distribution asset management for the larger Progress Florida, which provides electricity to most of central Florida, agreed. Cutliffe said downsizing in outside contractors' personnel would be felt even more than reductions at the state's second largest publicly-regulated power company.

"When we bring in resources for a hurricane, we grow our resources by a factor of five or six," Cutliffe said. "It's a huge expansion of the people working on our property, so small changes in our workforce don't have a large impact. But when we bring that many people in the region, just as Mr. McQuagge described, that is the end result of the resource constraints."

Florida Power and Light, the largest electricity company in the state, added that it might be hard to predict the impact of a shrunken contractor pool until it’s needed. And by then it might be too late to do anything about it, the company that provides service to South Florida and most of the Atlantic Coast, said.

"It's going to be a challenge for coordination," said Richard Shaheen, FPL's senior director of engineering and technical services. "We have yet to face that sort of challenge yet, but we've had experience at going pretty far outside of the state and territory to retrieve resources.”

But PSC chairman Matthew Carter said that the reduced pool of independent contractors caused by the economy could lead the power companies to have opportunities to help it rebound.

"Maybe there could be some opportunities for some of our work force -- small businesses," Carter said. "Obviously they might not be able to do the electrical work, but certainly in terms of debris clearing as long as its not within the confines of live wire...and some of the more mundane kinds of things, we could possibly look at that."

Commissioner Katrina McMurrian added that the power companies might look to the laid off contractors themselves.

"To the extent that there have been a lot of people who have been laid off, and the job market is was it is, is there reason to think that they would be able to go to that job pool that perhaps haven't found another job yet given this economy and try to rehire some of the people that already trained to do some of these things?" McMurrian asked.

However, McQuagge said individual hiring could not move nearly as quickly as contracting with companies, so hiring laid off contractors would not be a silver bullet.

In addition from hearing from the big-four power companies - FPL, Progress, Gulf and Tampa Electric - the PSC was briefed by the Florida Public Utilities Company, Florida Municipal Electric Association, the city of Leesburg, Florida Electric Cooperatives Association, Glades Electric, AT&T, Verizon and Embarq Florida.

Other than the possible contractor issue, the companies all reported they were in good shape for the 2009 hurricane season.

The PSC has held a hurricane preparedness workshop annually since 2005, when Hurricane Wilma knocked down 10,000 FPL light poles and caused more than 3 million people to lose power. The delayed recovery from the category 3 storm caused much consternation across the state and led to investigations by the PSC and the Legislature.

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