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JEA Board Assesses Irma’s Impact On Utility

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JEA
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Willowbranch pump station after Hurricane Irma

Jacksonville’s community-owned utility JEA incurred around $30 million in total costs associated with last week’s Hurricane Irma, that’s according to reports submitted by JEA officers to the utility’s board Tuesday.

It’s about the same as it was last year after Hurricane Matthew. Although JEA is still waiting to receive some money after Matthew skirted Northeast Florida’s coast, CEO Paul

McElroy expects most of Irma’s costs to be covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and commercial insurance. Still, the company is on the hook for about $2 million in Matthew costs not covered by insurance or FEMA.

McElroy said, unlike private utilities in other parts of the state, JEA won’t have to raise rates to cover that gap and the expected gap from Irma.

“We do have a commercial insurance which helps us with the distribution system. We also have insurance for our plants.  So, we’ve got a couple of different insurance products that are already including in the current rate structure,” he said. “On top of that we can avail ourselves for the appropriate expenditures of a FEMA reimbursement. The commercial entities, the private entities don’t have that access.”

Power Restoration and Communication

Though it took around the same time for the utility to restore power to customers after the latest storm — at the height of Irma there were about 280,000 in the dark — JEA’s board and officers say between the out-of-state crews and full-time employees working 16 to 18 hour days, the restoration process was a success.

However, Board Chairman Alan Howard echoed Mayor Lenny Curry’s criticisms of JEA communication during ongoing restoration efforts.

“We’re looking to make sure that management evaluates all of its systems and all of its communications policies to ensure that our customers receive timely and accurate information regarding the outage, assessment and the repair at their individual home and business,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to be looking for as a lesson to be learned from this storm in particular.”

JEA officials took heat from the mayor’s office after customers reported being told power was on at their homes, only to check out of hotels and return to dwellings in the humid dark. Those same officials Tuesday said they’re working on a new communication strategy that includes a better explanation of how to read the company’s outage map and a reminder that customers should log in to their individual accounts for more accurate information on their outage.

Employee Stories and Sewage Spills

Chief Human Resources Officer Angie Hiers also took some time during the meeting to highlight employees whose selflessness helped bring suffering customers back to some sense of normalcy — even if those same employees themselves had lost everything.

Three of those Hiers highlighted rode out the storm at one of the utility’s 1400 pump stations, ensuring the station kept power and preventing widespread sewage from overflowing. They eventually had to be rescued after being trapped by falling trees and flood waters.

Sewage spills following Irma were estimated at 2.3 million gallons. That’s little more than a fifth of what they were post-Matthew, when 70 spills saw 10 million gallons of raw and partially treated wastewater leach into rivers, streams and neighborhoods.

Much of that is credited to the doubling of total generators and backup generators at the utility’s disposal. Still, out of the company’s 37 water treatment plants across Duval and parts of Clay and St. Johns County, 21 of them lost power and only 15 had generators.

CEO Paul McElroy said extra power generation wouldn’t have helped some lift stations and plants because of the sheer amount of water dropped on JEA’s coverage area by Irma and a powerful Nor’easter.

“When you looked at it we had a number of stations that are high and dry under normal conditions and when we looked at [them] just shortly after the storm they were underwater. So, a generator and an electric feed just aren’t going to help those,” he said.

Future Resiliency

McElroy said the utility won’t be making any concrete recommendations about shoring up the sewage system’s defenses against future storms in the near term, but that a long-term plan for beefing up the system’s resiliency in the face of rising sea levels and growing frequency of stronger storms is in the works.

“How do we build an infrastructure of wastewater into the remainder of the 21st century and 22nd century with the potential for rising tides, the potential for these types of storms to occur in the future that would harden the system a bit more?” He said. “We’ll have to do that broadly with the community, with the council, with the building community, etc.”

He said such a long-term plan would require changing state building codes and ordinances.

Use JEA’s sewage spill reporting website to report overflows in your area.

Ryan Benk can be reached at rbenk@wjct.org, at (904) 358 6319 or on Twitter at @RyanMichaelBenk.