Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Power Failure in Tallahassee-Leon County

TALLAHASSEE - Power failed post-Hurricane Hermine and the lights went out, too. The power structure of city-county government failed to serve the residents of the capital city in an efficient and effective manner. No amount of spin on social media is going to cover for an inept municipal government that bungled the power restoration effort to a city nearly blacked out overnight Thursday and into Friday morning, as a weakening Category 1 storm made landfall southeast of Tallahassee.

Scott Maddox and Mayor Andrew Gillum took to social media in the immediate aftermath of the storm to assure constituents, 80-percent of whom sat in the dark, that power was being restored as quickly as possible. Four days later, more than 20,000 city utility customers still had none. That would be a reasonable response time for a hurricane of any magnitude, but taking into account this was no more than severe thunderstorm strength on the weaker, western side of Hermine, it is inexcusable.

Maddox was trying to encourage patience and keep Tallahassee's residents informed. The mayor was playing the politician's favorite game of covering one's own backside with wordplay. "We are happy to accept any help," the mayor posted to Facebook. The problem with these words are that you don't sit in a darkened city and wait for the cavalry to arrive. Did he learn nothing from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's inaction and ineptitude post-Katrina in 2005? The cavalry, in this case nearly 600 Florida Power and Light employees situated in Lake City 100 miles away, doesn't impose its will on a community and start working to restore its power grid. There's a procedure in place that involves no more than a simple phone call or e-mail to the State Emergency Response Team across town at the Emergency Operations Center in SouthWood. And that call simply needs to be made through the Leon County Emergency Management structure. Yet, no one seems to be calling out Emergency Management Director Kevin Peters or even including him in this discussion. That's the chain of command. City manager coordinates with county EM and the call is made to the state and immediate help is sent to the city.

This is Emergency Management 101. When the capabilities of a local community are overwhelmed, the county and state work to provide the necessary resources.

Mutual aid compacts exist between states to allow for procurement of resources across state lines with full reimbursement available. Closer to home, municipalities and county resources stand at the ready to assist each other and those resources are under the Governor's purview once a state of emergency is declared. And in the case of this storm, a private utility company stood at the ready to pounce on Tallahassee's large-scale power outage. The Governor had to act where the city and county did not, at least not quickly enough by all counts, in the wake of Hurricane Hermine.

That's when the finger-pointing started in the media; all the while, Mayor Gillum insisting he hadn't denied any and all help. An article in Saturday morning's Tallahassee Democrat told a different story, one of a city utility manager speaking in direct contradiction of the mayor. "If you send 150 more trucks, we don't have 150 people to put on those trucks," he told the Democrat. Jim Rosica, in a blog post today, tells of the offer of help from FPL President Eric Sigaly who was sitting across from Gillum and utilities chief Rob McGarrah. The problem of 150 hardly seems like an excuse for denying the help of the private utility.

As the city's top brass, they should have made those calls Friday as soon as they knew the extent of the power outage. Every available resource, including FPL, should have been in Tallahassee Friday evening, ready to get the job done. And instead of pointing fingers and covering his own backside, Mayor Gillum should have been leading the cavalry, not waiting for it to arrive uninvited.

The blame game continues today as 17,000 remain without power, air conditioning or refrigeration in their homes. At some point, the mayor and the local governments need to step up and take accountability. What if Hermine had been a Category 3 or higher storm? How would the capital city handle what would unequivocally be a utility apocalypse?

There's no denying that this storm caused unforeseen levels of damage to the region's power grid, especially considering that there weren't copious amounts of rain, like what the Tampa Bay region experienced last week, nor were hurricane force winds felt in any part of Leon County. The real power failure, however, rests with city hall, plain and simple. We can do better, Mayor Gillum. We must. Your job depends on it.

Chris Doyle is a former Public Information Officer with the State Emergency Response Team in Florida and a freelance writer. Contact: doyle_cm@yahoo.com.

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