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A Times Editorial

Let's check Florida Power's readiness

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 26, 2001

After Tropical Storm Gabrielle came ashore south of Tampa Bay on Friday, Sept. 14, it took Florida Power crews up to 48 hours to restore electricity to all of its customers left in the dark. There was little the utility's customers could do but complain, and that they did. Other area power companies also were getting an earful from angry customers. But Florida Power may have had less customer good will to draw on than other area utilities.

Florida Power Corp. of St. Petersburg is no longer a locally owned company. It is now part of Energy Progress, headquartered in Raleigh, N.C. The merger resulted in layoffs for hundreds of Florida Power workers and golden parachutes for a handful of top Florida Power executives. Even before Gabrielle struck, customers had been complaining about what they saw as a change for the worse at Florida Power -- in both its service and its attitude toward customers. Now that the power is back on, Florida Power may have an even tougher job repairing its relationship with the community.

Estimates are that 400,000 customers in Florida Power's coverage area lost power during the storm, which arrived on a Friday morning. Locally, 1,500 customers in southern Pinellas, along with about 200 in Hernando County, lacked power as late as Sunday afternoon, 48 hours after the brunt of the storm had passed.

So how did the electric company get its wires so crossed this time?

Florida Power spokesmen said Gabrielle caught the company by surprise when it abruptly accelerated and changed course. They sent for reinforcement trucks from North and South Carolina, but drivers couldn't beat the storm. When Gabrielle hit, the trucks were somewhere in Georgia. When they arrived in St. Petersburg, their radios were incompatible with the local company's equipment.

Drought-weakened trees had knocked down hundreds of power lines. Working on one line at a time in unfamiliar terrain slowed the response time even more. A new dispatch and assignment system instituted as a result of the merger may have further complicated matters. And in some cases, the company's computers showed that power had been restored in neighborhoods where it had not been. Florida Power's attitude seemed to be that the computer is always right.

That explanation sounds plausible enough, but when the shower is cold and the food in the refrigerator has spoiled, customers want more than excuses. The utility's customers can't vote with their feet. But they can ask the state Public Service Commission to assess Florida Power's performance and make sure power companies have adequate staff and equipment on hand -- and on call -- for emergencies.

The PSC has historically been reluctant to address questions of service, preferring to stick to rate questions. But a fair evaluation of rates should include the quality of service customers receive.

Before a storm more powerful than Gabrielle hits, the state should make sure that Florida Power and other utilities are ready to respond.

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