After Irma: Why planting the right tree in the right place matters
Susan Salisbury | Friday, September 22,2017
Trimming trees before hurricane season is a necessary pain that South Florida homeowners know, or should know, well.
It goes doubly so for Florida Power & Light.
The Juno Beach-based company, which operates more than 45,000 miles of overhead power lines surrounded by about 7 million trees, says it chops away limbs and brush from about 15,000 miles of lines each year, and in the last 10 years, has cleared more than 150,000 miles of lines. Its preventive maintenance plan calls for clearing main power lines every three years and neighborhood lines every six years, on average.
But some people say the company didn’t do enough before Hurricane Irma.
In the weeks after Irma, the massive trees planted in Coral Gables, known as “The City Beautiful” for its gorgeous tree canopy and gardens, became the center of nasty exchanges between FPL and Coral Gables city officials. During Irma, hundreds of trees fell on power lines there.
On Sept. 15, as thousands remained without power, Coral Gables said in a letter to FPL that the city is not permitted to clear trees from the right-of-way that have a downed or low power line, as the power line must be first removed by FPL. The city began issuing thousands of dollars in fines to FPL after power was not fully restored by Sunday, Sept. 17.
Then on Monday, Sept. 18, two Miami-Dade County attorneys filed a lawsuit against FPL alleging the company failed to properly prepare for Irma and that FPL charged customers a storm restoration fee but did nothing to strengthen its grid.
John Ruiz, an attorney with MSP Recovery Law Firm in Miami, and Gonzalo Dorta, an attorney with Dorta Law in Coral Gables, filed the lawsuit in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court. They are asking the court to certify the case as a class action lawsuit on behalf of the more than 4.4 million FPL customers who lost power during Irma.
FPL issued this response to Coral Gables:
“We understand that it’s extremely frustrating for our customers to be without power. That said, frivolous lawsuits and ludicrous code violations that attempt to pressure us into providing preferential treatment for their city will not work. Our focus is on restoring power to all of our customers, and we will not be moved by self-entitled politicians who are looking for someone to blame for the city’s irresponsibly managed tree program. The fact is the city of Coral Gables has for many years resisted FPL’s well-documented efforts to trim trees and harden our electric system. Unfortunately for our customers in that area, they are now paying the price in terms of extended outages due to hundreds of trees that have fallen into our lines.
“While we do not have a precise assessment of the number of city-owned trees that may have been improperly located, resulting in unnecessarily extensive damage to electrical equipment and extended outages for Coral Gables residents, there’s no doubt that the city’s extreme approach to trees is the cause of the problem. More importantly, it threatens the safety of the residents of Coral Gables and the lives of the line workers who are trying to restore power,” the statement read.
Statewide, FPL, which is still collecting $1.05 a month from each of its customers to pay for the damage caused by Hurricane Wilma in 2005, says it has spent $3 billion on strengthening its system since 2006. And it says the hardening has paid off in that Irma caused no significant damage to FPL’s infrastructure and the restoration of power after Irma has occurred four times faster than it did for Wilma.
Although it’s too early to calculate what the cost of vegetation removal will be for FPL or municipal and county governments after Irma, FPL spokesman Bud Fraga said that since no major hurricane had hit Florida since Wilma in 2005, a lot of tree and debris damage was expected.
Wilma made landfall as a Category 3 at Cape Romano, south of Naples, hit western Palm Beach County south of Lake Okeechobee with Category 2 force winds and was a Category 1 when its eye passed over West Palm Beach as it exited the state on a northeasterly course.
In 2006, state utility regulators approved a plan that allowed FPL to collect $1.1 billion over 12 years from all the households and businesses it serves to pay for all its 20o5 storm costs and to pay off the remaining expenses of the 2004 storms, Francis and Jeanne. The total cost to fix the grid damage from the 2004 and 2005 storms was $1.8 billion.
For 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, which churned along Florida’s east coast but never actually made landfall in the state, FPL customers were charged $318.5 million in restoration and storm fund replenishment costs. It took out power to 1.2 million FPL customers and required the replacement of 250 miles of power lines, 900 transformers and 400 utility poles.
Hurricane Irma, by comparison, made landfall as a Category 4 near Key West on Sept. 10, then continued north, also making landfall at Marco Island as a Category 3, and pummeling almost the entire state before exiting into Georgia with tropical storm force winds. Overall, Irma knocked out power to nearly 90 percent of FPL’s 5 million customer accounts — 10 million people — in 35 counties.
No numbers are available on how many miles of lines need to be replaced after Irma or restoration costs. However, FPL said that Irma downed about 2,000 poles compared to the 12,000 Wilma took down, even though Irma affected a far larger area. The company attributes the difference to grid-strengthening efforts such as inspecting and replacing poles.
How much of Irma’s damage came from palm fronds, tree branches and even uprooted trees blowing into power lines also is yet unknown.
But FPL’s vegetation removal crews were doubled to about 8,000 workers after Irma from Wilma’s 4,000.
So trimming trees and overgrown brush near power lines before a storm is a crucial and cost-saving preventative measure for power companies — and their customers. Utilities are allowed to recover trimming costs from customers.
Not only that, but federal and state laws require utilities to clear right-of-ways under their power lines.
The Federal Regulatory Energy Commission began requiring utilities to manage vegetation growth along the path of their larger power transmission lines after shoddy tree-trimming around major power lines by Ohio Utility First Energy Corp. was found to be the root cause of an Aug. 14, 2003 blackout that cut power to 50 million people in the U.S. and Canada.
Trees hit three high-voltage transmission lines, which then short-circuited and failed. The power surged into lines that were still open, overloading those. The power failure cascaded through eight states and part of Canada. New York City was blacked out around 4 p.m. as millions of commuters attempted to drive home with traffic lights out or board an inoperable subway system.
Under the federal rules, utilities can be fined up to $1 million per day for failure to comply.
In Florida, a law that took effect in 2010 prohibits trees that will grow taller than 14 feet from being planted in utility rights-of-way. That law also requires utilities to conduct trimming in rights-of-way and prohibits municipalities from requiring utilities to obtain a permit to cut trees and vegetation.
But utilities have no control over vegetation outside their rights-of-way.
That, FPL says, is where homeowners come in.
Customers can do their part by planting the right tree in the right place — away from power lines — and by keeping trees trimmed before hurricane season each year, FPL says.
“Planting the right tree in the right place is the single most important thing customers can do,” Fraga said.
What FPL advises: Right tree, right place
1. Find the right tree – Before selecting your tree, make sure you know how tall, wide and deep it will be at maturity, and whether it’s a problem tree. Problem trees, some of which are prohibited in some municipalities, that should not be planted adjacent to or under power lines include Australian pines, Melaleuca, Brazilian pepper, tree bamboo, schefflera and ficus. Recommended trees suitable for planting adjacent to overhead power lines in South Florida include Silver Buttonwood, Geiger Tree, Spanish Stopper, Florida Thatch Palm, Glaucous Cassia. For lists of recommended trees for your region of Florida, visit the University of Florida’s “Trees and Power Lines” website.
2. Choose the right spot – At maturity, will your trees’ canopy reach the overhead lines? More than 40 feet away from power lines, any tree can be planted. Large should be planted at least 30 feet and medium trees at least 20 feet away. Small trees and palms that will not grow taller than 14 feet can be planted adjacent to power lines.
3. Call before you dig – Call 811 at least two full business days before you plan to start digging and a representative will come out to your house or business and clearly mark the location of all underground utilities. This is a free service. You can also submit your request online at www.Sunshine811.com.
4. Work safely – Whether you’re planting a tree, preparing your property for storm season or picking fruit, remember to stay safe and stay far away from power lines at all times. Be sure that ladders or scaffolds are far enough away so that you – and the ends of the tools you’re using – don’t come within 10 feet of power lines. Allow even greater distance for safety near higher voltage power lines.
5. For more information, go to https://www.fpl.com/reliability/trees.html