By Michele Dargan, Special for the Civic Association — The Palm Beach Civic Association hosted a community forum Thursday morning on hurricane recovery and underground utilities.
More than 85 people attended the event held at The Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea. Deputy Town Manager Jay Boodheshwar spoke about “The Impacts of Hurricane Irma and Lessons Learned.”
Underground Utilities Project Manager Steven Stern presented an update on the town-wide undergrounding project.
Town Manager Tom Bradford and Town Engineer Patricia Strayer also attended to help answer questions from the crowd.
Civic Association President Ned Barnes welcomed everyone.
The Civic Association is dedicating the entire season to the memory of Stanley M. Rumbough, who passed away on September 27. Mr. Rumbough was a Civic Association director for 40 years, chairman for 10 years and chairman emeritus since 2010.
“Many of you knew Stan and loved him as we did,” Mr. Barnes said. “We will miss his leadership and his energy and his positive spirit and his love for the Town of Palm Beach.”
Town Council President Richard Kleid and town council members Bobbie Lindsay, Danielle Moore and Maggie Zeidman attended the forum.
Mr. Barnes asked for a round of applause for members of the police, fire-rescue, public works and other town staff, many of whom sacrificed their own personal needs, to take care of the town and its residents before, during and after the hurricane.
The Impacts of Hurricane Irma
Mr. Boodheshwar presented information from a detailed post-hurricane report on the town’s performance before, during, and after Irma: what worked and what needs improvement next time. The report was compiled from feedback by town staff with input from the elected officials, residents, and members of the business community.
The report will be posted on the town’s website within two weeks.
Approximately 250 members of the town’s staff worked more than 14,000 hours with some form of recovery responsibilities. Many worked more than 16 hours per day to assist in a fast and safe recovery, Mr. Boodheshwar said.
“We require every single employee in town to have at least a couple of basic levels of training through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) National Incident Management System,” he said. “Collectively, the town’s staff – at all levels – hold 800 certifications, because when disaster strikes we take off our day-to-day hats and put on our emergency management hats and take on different roles.”
Irma was the strongest storm worldwide in 2017 with 185 mph sustained winds and gusts of 200 mph gusts at its peak intensity before it hit Florida. Irma’s peak winds in Palm Beach were 71 miles per hour and occurred between 5:30-6:30 p.m. on September 10.
“We alerted the community 11 days before landfall to make sure people were paying attention and were beginning to prepare,” he said. “It was mostly a wind event, so our issue was fallen vegetation and power outages.”
Estimated damages for public property are approximately $400,000 and for private properties approximately $34 million. There were 9,600 power outages in town, with most restored within days of the storm and (mostly) all power restored within a week.
Public Safety Highlights
Fire-Rescue drove every street at 2 AM after the storm went by to do the initial assessment.
Officers responded to approximately 270 calls for service between 2 p.m. on September 9 and 4:30 p.m. on September 11. There were eight arrests and 37 welfare checks. Fire-Rescue responded to 54 incidents (3 medical calls and 51 fire-related – many were false alarms and some tree fires due to live wires hitting vegetation) between 2 p.m. on September 9 and 4:30 p.m. on September 11.
“We did have quite a few calls from concerned family members who aren’t here in town and have elderly parents who didn’t have air conditioners and we gladly went and checked on them to make sure they were okay,” Mr. Boodheshwar said.
Public Works Highlights
The first push to clear roadways was completed by contractor crews from Bergeron Emergency Services and in-house with town crews from Public Works and Public Safety. This work began at 2 a.m. Sept. 11 and was completed by the end of that day.
The contractor crews worked for less than a week and hauled away approximately 72 loads and more than 4,600 cubic yards of debris.
Town crews worked six days a week for several weeks. They collected 1,391 truckloads of debris, totaling over 37,500 cubic yards. All vegetative debris removal was completed by October 10, within 30 days of the storm.
An estimated 3,000 cubic yards of sand was removed from the roads in Reaches 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7 and placed back on the beaches.
Of the town-owned street lights, about 70 percent were damaged. Repairs have been completed on nearly all the damaged lights.
At some locations, where standby generators had to operate for long periods, the equipment failed (South Fire, D-8 pump station, and the Public Works facility). Portable generators were brought in until FPL restored power. In other cases, where standby generators did not exist (Par 3, traffic intersections, sewage pump stations) portable generators were provided.
Response and Recovery
Earlier this week, the town was notified that it will receive more than $4 million in reimbursement from FEMA for damages and expenses incurred from Hurricane Matthew last year, Mr. Boodheshwar said.
“We are eligible to receive a pretty significant amount of reimbursement (from Irma),” Mr. Boodheshwar said. “All of our emergency protective measures – police officers and fire-rescue – will be 100 percent reimbursed as well as most of our debris removal and any kind of permanent repair work that needs to be done.”
Opportunities for Improvement
Mr. Boodheshwar said there are approximately 60 to 70 items in the report have been identified by the town as areas that can be improved for future storms.
Among the improvement areas contained in the report:
*Allow pre-designated “owners’ representatives” to return to island in place of owners who are out of town. This will provide for a timelier evaluation of private property conditions during Phase 2 re-entry (when residents are first allowed back on the island).
*Consider allowing companies designated for making emergency repairs on back-up generators to enter the town during Phase 2 re-entry.
*The town’s phone system became disabled and the storm hotlines and rumor control lines were not able to be accessed by employees or the public for several days. Research back-up plans for telephone connectivity in future storms.
*Review staffing and assignments to ensure that personnel are provided adequate rest without excessively long work days or extended on-call after-hours response.
*Coordination with Florida Power & Light (FPL) could have been more organized and the town could have been a better resource for quicker restoration. Further relationship development with FPL will maximize the partnership in the future.
*When possible, push or haul trees blocking roads to the side instead of cutting them up, to allow for replanting.
*Consider supplementing existing generator equipment with additional purchases or rentals to provide full capability.
*Consider obtaining larger equipment for use by the town’s crews to expedite debris removal and engage a specific local contract for sand removal.
*Ensure vendor contracts are clear about locked rates even in the event of an emergency. Research the requirement of performance bonds for major contractors to ensure response and good performance.
*Obtain timelier and more accurate estimates of storm damage and the extent of debris using aerial observations via drones.
“Irma was a big test for the town and we felt, overall, we did okay,” Mr. Boodheshwar said. “We’re not going to rest on our success. We’re going to keep improving. Hopefully, we won’t have another storm next year, but if we do, we feel like we’ll be more prepared.”
Report on Underground Utilities
Mr. Stern thanked the Civic Association for helping to fund the Peer Review of Underground Utilities, which will be presented at the Dec. 12 Town Council meeting.
Regarding the status of the town’s $98.6 million undergrounding project, Mr. Stern said the project is ambitious and well-planned. It improves the safety, reliability and aesthetics on the island, he said.
The project begins at each end of the island – both the north end and the south end – and works its way to the middle over an eight-year period, ending in 2024.
The phase one north construction is 18 percent complete and on schedule and the south construction is 16 percent complete and on schedule. Phase two designs, for both the north and south, are 31 percent complete and on schedule.
The town has collected just under $11 million to date in pre-paid assessments from the community, he said. The town has pre-paid $2.7 million in assessments for town-owned property. Four percent of the project budget has been spent, he said.
There have been no delays in the undergrounding schedule due to Hurricane Irma, Mr. Stern said.
“The undergrounding project is confused frequently with significant Public Works’ water main work occurring in the north part of phase one,” Mr. Stern said. “They are two separate projects, but for convenience and to minimize disruption to residents, we’re trying to get them done at the same time.”
Mr. Stern said the town gathered anecdotal information from other barrier island communities on both coasts as to the effectiveness of underground utilities versus overhead systems during Hurricane Irma.
“We learned that undergrounding systems did much better than overhead systems, Mr. Stern said. “The common themes that we heard were: there was no damage to the underground system; overhead systems did suffer some damage – wires down, poles, and vegetation – which caused some fires; no storm surge to speak of; when there were outages from the underground systems, they were service-related outages, meaning the feeder lines supporting the underground were what was typically affected.”
In Jupiter Inlet Colony, there were no outages during the storm or after. In Jupiter Island, there were no outages during the storm, however they suffered outages after the storm due to repairs off-island from FPL.
In the south side of Gulfstream, the undergrounding is complete, while the north side still runs on overhead utilities, Mr. Stern said. The north did suffer outages; while the south did well, he said.
To get data for other years, the town looked at past FPL reliability reports. Underground systems consistently outperformed overhead systems over a five-year period, the reports say.
“Heavy construction will be limited to seasonality,” Mr. Stern said. “Where we can do so, we’re not going to inconvenience the residents. Another reason for the phasing is to maintain traffic control and to be able to roll the equipment on and off the island. There’s a substantial amount of equipment that needs to be staged.”
The town holds monthly informational meetings in the north end and south end of town regarding the ongoing underground work. Residents may attend and ask questions directly to the staff and crew. The first Friday of every month at 8 a.m., they meet in the south fire house, and the first Monday of every month at 8 a.m., they meet at Annie’s Dock in the north end of town. These meetings are not limited to residents who live in those areas as the information will be pertinent to undergrounding in all areas of town.
For more information about the town’s undergrounding project, visit www.undergrounding.info.
Photography provided by Capehart Photography