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JEA Has Learned A Lot From Hurricane Irma, Hopes To Apply New Skills To Current Season

Jacksonville flooding
Robert Torbert
/

Hurricane Irma showed Jacksonville just how destructive the vicious combination of low-lying land, rising tides and a slow-moving monster storm could be. 

Some areas of the River City seemed to sink into the sea as the banks of the St. Johns River eroded, causing the worst flooding in the city in the last 170 years. (Original National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announcement of this incorrectly stated it was the largest in 150 years)

Residents and government agencies have been asking what lessons they’ve learned since Irma sideswiped Jacksonville in September, including municipal utility JEA.

“Keep in mind, we’ve had two effects from hurricanes in less than a year and after each storm we learn something new and we’re able to improve and hopefully our customers have learned something and they’re able to improve their plan as well,” JEA spokeswoman Gerri Boyce said.

Hurricane Matthew, which had less disastrous effects, hit just under a year before Irma.

Just more than a week after the second storm, JEA board members, senior staff and then-CEO Paul McElroy announced the financial hit to the utility after Irma hovered somewhere around $30 million, most of which would eventually be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Along with that presentation was the promise to provide better communication to residents that were without power. At the height of Irma there were about 280,000 customers in the dark. At the time, Mayor Lenny Curry chastised McElroy 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.

But that kind of problem has been resolved as the utility awaits the heat of a season expecting up to 16 named storms, Boyce said.

“We’ve invested millions of dollars to both the electric and water sewer systems and we have technology updates that we’ve made and we’ve improved our communications processes. So, on the electric side we’ve replaced wooden poles with concrete,” she said.

On the sewer side, JEA last year admitted they didn’t have enough generators to sustain water pump stations, resulting in worse flooding and even sewage overflows. Boyce said though the goal is to have zero of these kinds of overflows that harm the environment and endanger the population, they can’t promise that there won’t be any in the future.

Still, Boyce said the utility is well on its way to accomplishing its goal of having 850 electric generators on hand by 2020.

“We’ve added 150 generators and pumps across our plants and facilities and we’ve also hardened the electric service to our largest pump stations,” she said.

The utility currently has more than 300 generators for its pump stations and is looking to more than double that, to 800, in the next two years. JEA is also in the process of beefing up drone teams that were first used during Irma to assess damage from the air and provide emergency resources faster.

On top of all that, Boyce said the utility is focusing on a more proactive strategy to controlling unruly trees and other vegetation that was blamed for the majority of power outages.

She said JEA is also working on ensuring more new neighborhoods can have underground lines. Though that makes the lines more susceptible to flooding, it would prevent tree-caused outages. Still, the process of putting more of those lines in existing neighborhoods underground is an expensive one and still requires buy-in from community residents.