In the early hours of Sunday, September 10, Hurricane Irma struck the Florida Keys. The Category 4storm with wind gusts exceeding 150 miles per hour caused catastrophic damage throughout the entire island chain. The highest elevation in the Keys is only 18 feet, with many populated areas below six feet. Storm surges exceeding 10 feet were experienced near the eyewall. Storm surges of three to four feet were common on the ocean side of many islands.
It was a challenging and dangerous situation. But as the chief operating officer of the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative, I was ready to face it — thanks in no small part to my experience at Cal Poly.
I began at Cal Poly in the fall of 1972. During my four years I had a diverse circle of friends that included electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, transportation engineering, aeronautical engineering, architect, architectural engineering, agriculture, agriculture engineering, history, and business majors. We often formed multi-discipline study groups and helped each other on various projects and activities. Our professors encouraged us to spend extra time in the various labs and made them available to us.
My senior year our small cadre of EE Power Option students had keys to the Electric Power Institute lab and spent many hours building and tinkering. Five of us collaborated on our senior project to build an electric windmill generator with each designing and building an individual component.
The hands-on academic studies combined with the many opportunities to get involved in campus activities and the San Luis Obispo community is the essence of the Learn by Doing philosophy. My Cal Poly experience is the foundation of my practical management and problem solving skills.
Since graduation I have worked for electric utilities in California, Missouri and Florida for 36 years, the last 11 as COO of the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative (FKEC), the electric utility serving the Upper and Middle Florida Keys. One of my roles is to ensure FKEC’s hurricane preparation and restoration efforts provide our members with the best possible results.
Immediately following the destruction of Irma, FKEC had 90 percent of our members without power. We brought in 400 contract workers with their line trucks and construction equipment, who then had to be integrated into our normal workforce of only 115 employees. We set up two complete base camps to house and feed all of the workers. There was very limited internet and cell phone coverage was almost non-existent for the first week. Fuel and material deliveries from the mainland were delayed due to shortages and traffic congestions.
In the face of these challenges, FKEC restored our transmission lines and substations within 48 hours. We were able to restore power to 90 percent of our members in less than a week. Everyone that was able to receive power were restored within 10 days. This was all done without any lost time injuries.
This amazing accomplishment was possible due to the dedication of our employees and contractors, years of preparation and training, and our ability to remain organizationally flexible. Almost every day brought new sets of challenges, each requiring new and different approaches. I believe my leadership, planning and decision-making played a significant role in our overall success.
It is with pride I can say that my Cal Poly experience and its Learn by Doing approach positively touched the Florida Keys this past September.