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Vero in the dark:
Small storm, big blackouts

Vero electric’s bid to stay free of FPL not helped by response

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of October 13, 2011)
Photo: A police officer directs traffic with lights out at the intersection of Beachland Boulevard and A1A.

Vero Beach electric’s response to major weekend power outages caused by a storm that didn’t rise to the level of a tropical depression seriously undercut arguments against selling the utility to Florida Power & Light.

Huge swaths of barrier island customers were without power for prolonged periods Saturday and Sunday – with Ocean Drive and its hotels and restaurants in darkness Sunday night – and calls to Vero electric were answered by a recording that offered no information and no option to speak to a person.

One argument frequently heard from those opposed to the sale of Vero Beach electric to FPL centers on reliability, and the quicker restoration of power by Vero electric following hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004.

“Remember 2004?” the supporters of the status quo say, warning that if Vero switches to FPL and another major storm hits, customers will  be left sitting in the dark with no air-conditioning.

So on Saturday night, when lights in Indian River Shores and parts of Vero’s Central Beach went out as residents were preparing dinner, few were prepared for the fact that they were about to spend the evening in the dark, with power not restored until 3 or 4 Sunday morning.

Another argument has been made that Vero electric, in contrast to FPL, provides prompt, personal customer service.  Last weekend, a key city staffer was away, and the city did not measure up to that standard, either.

Throughout Saturday and Sunday, Vero electric customers who called the city were greeted with the cheerful recorded voice of Customer Service Manager John Lee, who told them to “press 5” to report an outage.

Early Saturday, after pressing the button, callers were asked to enter their phone numbers and were told there was no problem in their area. Later, the message simply told them Vero electric was aware of outages – and then the line went dead.

Despite the hard work of field crews fighting to restore service in inclement weather, Vero clearly has no magic solution for quickly getting the lights back on when things go wrong.

When the low-pressure system began developing over Vero last weekend, it was no Frances or Jeanne, or even a Wilma.

Top winds were clocked in the high 50s with sustained winds of 20 to 30 miles per hour off and on for a couple of days as rain bands moved through. The National Weather Service website didn’t even bother to number or name the storm, simply calling the system a “surface low.”

The storm dumped about a foot of rain on the Vero Beach area and that played havoc with the electric utility. In this case, it appears the underground transmission lines on the barrier island did not work to Vero customers’ advantage.

Problems started for the city on Saturday morning and didn’t let up until the wee hours of Monday.

A transmission line west of town, by the Indian River Mall, reportedly went on the blink. Vero’s Substation 6 went down leaving Grand Harbor and a corridor of residents along Indian River Boulevard in the dark beginning at about 11 a.m. Saturday. Those customers were out of power until about 10:30 p.m.

Then late Saturday afternoon, most of Indian River Shores went off the grid, along with parts of Central Beach, where the power had been flashing on and off most of the afternoon.

According to e-mails among city officials, a transmission line between Substation 10 at Club Drive in Riomar and Substation 9 in the Shores had a problem. After the Grand Harbor substation problem was fixed, beleaguered electric crews were sent to find and repair the beach problem. By then it was after 11 p.m. Saturday.

Shores residents were awakened between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. by all the electrical appliances they’d left on the previous evening. 

By midday Sunday, the storm was abating and most beachside residents had a serious case of cabin fever.  But the fun wasn’t over for Vero Beach electric customers in Riomar, Central Beach and parts of the Shores or for tourists on Ocean Drive.

About 5 p.m. Sunday, the power went out again, with the outage expanding throughout the evening until around 8 p.m. The hotels, businesses and restaurants of Ocean Drive were dark, except for emergency exit lights and backup generator power.

A party of 18 celebrating a special occasion at the Ocean Grill was sent to the Quilted Giraffe on South U.S. 1 for dinner.  Football fans watching NFL games at Bobby’s were sent home.  Guests staying in beachfront hotels were left largely in the dark.

Councilman Brian Heady went out in his car shortly after 8 p.m. Sunday to determine the extent of the outage.

“The whole place is black, from down by Humiston all the way to Jaycee Beach,” Heady reported as he drove down Ocean Drive.  The same was true in Riomar and Central Beach east of A1A.

Vero Beach police cruisers with lights flashing provided some protection for cherry-pickers hoisting crews up to repair equipment.

Costa d’Este was softly illuminated by generator power but lost the use of its phone system when the power went out.

“Bobby’s went out around 5 p.m. last night (Sunday), I know people were there watching the football game and they had to go somewhere else,” said Paul Castraberti, owner of The Lemon Tree restaurant, Monday.

“I got here at 5 a.m. and the power was on, but I’m having some problems with my refrigeration” from all the blinking on and off of the power, Castraberti said. “I live in Pebble Bay and power was down from 5 p.m. to 10:30 Sunday night and for several hours the night before – we were down probably 12 hours total over the weekend.”

Power started coming back on in Central Beach Sunday night around 11 p.m., according to residents.

By Monday morning, a number of Vero Beach residents who had attempted to call the electric department throughout the weekend were angry.

Customers who left messages about what they deemed as urgent situations – such as a sparking power line on the mainland setting a palm tree on fire – did not receive return phone calls.

One local attorney, who called back Monday morning after more than 12 hours of no response from the city, said he was told that the Customer Service Department was overwhelmed, that calls had generated thousands of computer printouts, and there was no way they could process all of them.

“We are aware of the phone problem and are investigating,” said Electric Transmission and Distribution Director Randall McCamish on Monday morning.

According to Councilman Heady, who went to his office at City Hall around 8:30 p.m. Sunday, part of the problem might have been that no one was there.

“There’s not a soul here at City Hall,” Heady said. “No one upstairs, no one in customer service, no cars in the parking lot but mine.”

On Saturday, Customer Service Manager Lee’s e-mail box returned a robo-response saying he was out of the office until Tuesday, Oct. 12. In his absence, it appears that no one was staffing customer service while more than 5,000 households were in the dark. No one to answer phones and relay reports of outages to the field technicians. No one to track where the outage calls were coming from or to tally how many residents were out of service.

What’s even more disconcerting is the absence of neighborhood-specific detail in the “official” communications being shared with utility workers via e-mail.

City Manager Jim O’Connor did his best to pass along whatever information the city had Saturday evening, but there wasn’t much detail in the correspondence.

At 8:53 p.m. Saturday, O’Connor forwarded the latest information he had, a 6:06 p.m. e-mail from transmission and distribution dispatch. Unless O’Connor had a list of what breaker numbers corresponded to what areas of the city system, he wouldn’t know how many customers were out of service and where those people live.

O’Connor did not respond to questions about outages Sunday evening. He was in the dark in his oceanfront condominium, too.  At 6:30 a.m. Monday, O’Connor emailed back, presumably when his internet service was restored.

“Apologize it took so long to respond but your message did not arrive until this morning” O’Connor wrote in an e-mail.  Later in the morning, in response to a comment that it had been a long weekend for Vero Beach, O’Connor wrote, “Yes, it was a long weekend but a good opportunity for me to learn how the organization responds to a crisis. I was impressed and have a better appreciation for those folks I work with.”