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Gulf Power More Storm Ready 10 Years After Ivan

As the month of October was beginning in 2004, the region was still reeling from the September 16 landfall of Hurricane Ivan. One of the most significant impacts of the extensive storm damage was the loss of electricity. In Northwest Florida, that means Gulf Power Company was at the center of restoration efforts.

Ultimately, the utility’s response to the storm went a long way toward helping the company improve its storm readiness today.

Looking back, immediately after Hurricane Ivan, the vast majority of people across the region were in the dark.  Ninety-percent of all Gulf Power customers -  from Pensacola to Panama City – lost power. In fact, not one light bulb was burning in Escambia or Santa Rosa counties; and Plant Crist was knocked off line for the first time in 25 years.

John Hutchinson , who was chief spokesman for Gulf Power at the time, reported on the recovery progress. “We had 87 substations knocked out by the storm. We still have 12 that are offline. We still got about 100 miles of transmission lines to restore, and that was after 790 miles were knocked out. So, when we first looked at the situation, the devastation was tremendous,” he said.

Hutchinson noted that the restoration effort was going well, thanks to assistance from about 4,000 line workers from out of town. Crews came from around the country including Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas, Louisiana, and even Quebec, Canada. 

And, of course, the convoys of utility trucks arriving were a welcome sight.

“When they (residents) see the trucks coming in their neighborhood, they’re so glad to see ‘em because they know they’re going to get their power back on soon,” said Gordon Paulus.

Paulus is a communications specialist for Gulf Power, who had been hired at the utility just months before Ivan hit. He says the large influx of help was great, but presented many challenges that would lead to valuable lessons learned.

For one, they discovered that because most of the hotels in the area were damaged, they had to create large staging areas at places like the Pensacola Interstate Fairgrounds and Whiting Field, where they brought in huge tents and vendors to house and feed the outside workers.

Paulus says the operation worked so well, that it’s become a utility industry standard that’s much more efficient and cost effective.

“Because you’re not spending money for hotels, and, like I said the buses were transporting them to and from their trucks, which had to be staged in a different area. So, from a cost factor it makes sense. And, from a cost factor you have one vendor that takes care of setting up tents, bringing their cooks and serving the food and even providing laundry service, so it’s kind of a one-stop shop.”

After Hurricane Ivan, the huge contingent of linemen working on behalf of Gulf Power installed or replaced more than 22,000 miles of wire, 5,000 poles, 3,000 transformers and 48,000 fuses. And, power was restored to everyone who could receive it, within 14 days – one week sooner than the initial estimate of three weeks.

The utility certainly learned a lot and over the past decade, and has been busy hardening the system, particularly with upgrades in areas serving hospitals and other critical infrastructure. The company has installed 10,000 poles of higher grade construction in that they’re thicker, taller and can withstand higher winds.  More than 180 of those poles are concrete poles and  have been installed in coastal areas of Pensacola, Gulf Breeze, Destin, and Panama City Beach.

The utility is in the midst of its largest ever power-grid construction project, with reliability increased 32 percent. Additionally, it now maintains an aggressive infrastructure inspection program, and has an active vegetation management program to trim trees and limbs from power lines.

Gulf Power also has constructed two new storm-hardened buildings that are located on Pine Forest Road, far from the coast. 

One is a new state-of-the-art Distribution Control Center, where individuals keep a close watch on the grid from three comprehensive computer stations. Those stations represent different districts and individuals at the controls monitor for outages 24-hours-a-day/7-days-a-week, working directly with linemen to ensure that that power is restored safely and as quickly as possible.

This monitoring system led to Gulf Power’s online outage map now available for customers.

Just down the street from the Distribution Control Center is Gulf Power’s new 30,000-square-foot Storm Center that opened earlier this year.

Both structures are built to withstand winds of at least 200 miles an hour. The Storm center has pre-made brick walls, a concrete roof, and a gate of sorts that acts as a shutter for the few exterior windows.

It will serve as headquarters for the company’s storm restoration management team. Otherwise, it will be used as a training facility, with several classrooms inside and a large outdoor training area.

All in all, if another storm the size of Ivan should hit Northwest Florida, Gulf Power is ready. And, the utility encourages its customers to be, as well. More information on storm preparation and safety is available at www.gulfpower.com.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.