By Nick Tate
RIVIERA BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - Twenty years after Hurricane Andrew raked the state, Florida Power & Light, the state's largest utility, dedicated a new $3.8 million storm "command center" on Friday and announced energy-grid reinforcements that officials said will boost emergency planning.
FPL President Eric Silage said the new 10,000-square-foot, concrete-hardened center, built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, is designed to be the brains of the utility's storm-preparedness and response efforts, if another storm like Andrew sets Florida in its sights.
It puts under one roof key FPL functions that have historically been carried out in disparate facilities, he said. Among them: systems for tracking power outages, restoring electricity to customers, prioritizing power restoration to critical facilities, such as hospitals, police and fire departments, dispatching response and repair crews, as well as media communications.
Utility officials also detailed $44 million in FPL upgrades to power lines, infrastructure and energy-supply and backup systems that have been put in place since the last major storm - Hurricane Wilma - struck the region in October 2005.
"We at FPL plan and drill for a big storm all year long and this is the culmination of that - what's going on today," said Silagy, noting that FPL is inaugurating the new center by conducting a mock hurricane drill this week designed to test its systems and personnel before the year's storm season officially begins on June 1.
"There is no silver bullet, there's no quick fix, there's no system out there that's storm proof ... but this is part of an ongoing effort," he said.
During a press event that allowed public officials and media to tour the new facility, utility officials said this week's storm drill - built around a fictional Category 3 "Hurricane Marina" - is allowing some 3,000 FPL employees to go through a "dry run" of the new facility.
Mike Sole, FPL vice president for state governmental affairs, said the training has provided some lessons, as have previous storms that will help the utility improve its preparedness and response.
Sole would not say whether the center and FPL grid upgrades, would improve FPL's ability to restore power lost to customers in a storm more quickly and effectively than in the past, but noted "with each storm there's a lot of lessons learned, and new technologies will allow us to better monitor activities in the field."
FPL has come in for harsh criticism in the past from some of its 4.6 million customers over the speed of post-storm repairs, as well as rate increases.
Hurricane forecasters are predicting the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season - from June 1 to November 30 - to be less active than in recent years with 10-12 tropical storms, six of which will intensify into hurricanes.
Since the last major hurricane hit Florida in 2005, FPL has taken a number of steps to improve its storm preparedness.
Among them, FPL's natural gas-powered facilities - comprising 73 percent of the utility's sources - now use gas piped in from other states instead of through pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico which are more vulnerable to storms like Wilma, said FPL spokesman Neil Nissan. They also have 72 hours of backup fuel stored on site that would allow the plants to continue operating at full power, in the event of an interruption of gas supplies.
About 21 percent of FPL's power comes from its nuclear plants; the rest use oil and solar. FPL is a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Inc.
In the past five years, more than two-thirds of FPL's new power-line construction has been underground; in South Florida, underground power lines constitute 90 percent of new construction. Overall, about 40 percent of FPL lines are underground, which leaves them less vulnerable to wind damage.
In the past year, FPL has created a Web-based "power tracker" system, allowing customers to monitor - in real time - power outages and restoration efforts in its service territory.
Irene White, FPL senior direct of operations and support, noted FPL has at least 230,000 new customers who were not in Florida during the heavy 2005 hurricane season. About 1.2 million people have also moved to the state since then.
"So a lot of new Floridians haven't seen a major storm," she noted.
(Editing by David Adams and Carol Bishopric)