A true test: Hurricane Dorian spares Osceola, challenges emergency operations

Kissimmee resident Jeremy Lanier, left, and a representative from the 7-Eleven corporation, carry in bread to the special needs shelter at the Osceola Council on Aging during Hurricane Dorian.

While Hurricane Dorian was swirling in the Caribbean, Kissimmee Utility Authority was bringing in reinforcements from other states.

Lineworker crews from 16 municipal utilities in Minnesota and tree trimming crews from New Jersey arrived in Kissimmee on Sunday and Monday.

Although the hurricane missed Florida when it turned northward, the Kissimmee Utility Authority – like other public service agencies – got a chance to practice for the next one.

The KUA back-up crews immediately began “riding out the circuits” to look for potential problems along the utility’s 1,054 miles of power lines, according to KUA spokesman Chris Gent.

More than half of the crews from Minnesota were familiar with the Kissimmee system after coming to Kissimmee in 2017 following Hurricane Irma, which caused flooding and damage throughout the county.

KUA finds back-up utility crews through the Florida Municipal Electric Association. The out-of-town workers are paid by KUA, which then requests reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to Gent.  

Workers tested facility generators, topped off fuel levels in all vehicles, inspected substations and the power plant to ensure they were clear of any potential projectiles, Gent said.

KUA has been “hardening” the electrical grid by replacing wooden poles with steel and concrete poles and has upgraded miles of wire on transmission circuits to enhance the reliability of the system.

KUA also restructured its call center to improve the outage reporting system. Most of the call center is based at employee homes, which ramps up response time and saves employees from having to go out in the storm. The utility also used social media platforms to reach customers around the clock.

KUA’s 300 employees serve approximately 76,000 customers in Kissimmee and surrounding areas.

Osceola County activated the Emergency Operations Center last week after Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency as Dorian made its way toward Florida.

On Thursday, county government officials still had “a huge list of critical items to accomplish,” county spokeswoman Lisa Nason wrote in an email.

Eleven shelters that were opened at various locations in Osceola County closed on Wednesday as weather conditions improved and Dorian pushed up the East Coast. Most public schools in the region were closed Tuesday and Wednesday.

The county said the shelters were busiest on Tuesday morning with 572 people, including residents of Good Samaritan Village. The 55-plus community is prone to flooding and was evacuated before the storm. A Tuesday night curfew was lifted before it went into effect.

More than 210,000 sandbags were filled at locations throughout the county, according to Nason.

There was no damage reported anywhere in Osceola County. The local state of emergency will expire Sept. 8.