A decade after Hurricane Charley, KUA conducts annual disaster drill
By Ken Jackson
Get around local utility workers who’ve spent more than a decade working in Osceola County and bring up disaster or hurricane-related operations testing, and the conversation turns into a trading of war stories from the summer of 2004, which will soon be a decade ago.
KUA staffers took part in the utility’s annual mock disaster drill Thursday, which included in-office exercises and live-action training scenarios in the field.
“Our season on the run,” Kissimmee Utility Authority Supervisor of Communications Jim Harnois said of that hurricane season that saw Charley, Frances and Jeanne rake across Osceola.
He was one of the KUA staffers who took part in KUA’s annual mock disaster drill Thursday, which included in-office exercises and live-action training scenarios in the field. The scenarios tested pre-hurricane preparations and post-storm scenarios.
Jef Gray, KUA vice president of Internet Technology, has been in charge of the drill since 2000 and said he hoped to find processes that need improvement.
“We want to know what doesn’t work, where we need things like extra flashlights,” he said. “Running this now, we can address the issues before we get to June 1st.”
During the exercise, staffers called the customer service line posing as residents without power while all primary systems and their redundant backups were put through worst-case scenario paces. Gray leaned on his military background to throw curveballs at the KUA staff — a field vehicle getting hit by a tree, a manager having a heart attack, a fire drill in the operations center.
“Don’t tell me what you can do, show me,” he said. “We don’t want to rely on outside systems.”
Thursday’s results will be shared with management during a debriefing later this month.
The entire KUA power grid went down when Charley swept through on Aug. 13, 2014. Gray said that was attributed to older, wooden power poles failing, with help from many large trees that came down on them or their wires.
“At the street level, Charley wiped out in 45 minutes what it took 100 years to build,” he said. “We were fully operational here (at the operations center) except for 30 minutes of down time while we switched to backup systems.”
Assistant Vice President of Engineering Mike Simpson said KUA has been spending $400,000 annually to replace those wood poles with concrete-spun and tubular steel poles, which can handle a hurricane’s wind impacts much better. Major transmission towers also are being upgraded to ensure a better response in case another Charley-like storm hits Kissimmee, with isolated tornadoes embedded in the eye wall.
“We’ve hardened our main feeders to get them back up quickly, so if we do lose a feeder in a storm, we don’t lose as many houses,” Simpson said. “Since 2004 we’ve also improved our vegetation management, so we can keep right of ways clear so our units can get out and reach areas to get to work.”
Harnois said Thursday, while managing flickering transmission screens, that Charley actually may have done KUA a favor, taking out the aging poles and forcing the replacement of old fiber cables.
“The 12-fiber (cables) got taken out and we replaced it with 96-fiber (cables). That helped us widen our bandwidth,” he said.
Gray said repairs made over the past decade have hardened nearly every KUA resource, and with updated equipment and more than 100 cameras put in place to monitor services, the response to the next hurricane should be more effective than in 2004.
“We had people sleeping in the offices all week, technicians working 20-hour days,” he said of the Charley response.