It’s been decades since Sarasotafelt the brunt of a powerful storm, but when Hurricane Irma struck the state of Florida on September 10, no community in Florida would be completely spared. The storm would deliver less of a wallop to the Gulf Coast than initially feared, and few parts of Sarasota County saw true hurricane-force winds and none of the 75 Florida deaths attributed to the storm would be people who lived in Sarasota or Manatee, but trees that stood for years soon tangled in power lines and many Florida Power & Light [FPL] customers found themselves without electricity for nearly two weeks.

The Sarasota Fairgrounds in the weeks after the storm would be temporarily dubbed “FPL City” as linemen from around the country headquartered there and attempted to restore power as fast as possible. But residents irritated by sour milk and sweaty bed sheets still wonder why it took so long to turn the lights back on, and why a coastal region didn’t seem better prepared in the first place.

FPL officials, for what it’s worth, remain proud of the work done by linemen in the region. Early on, customers were told that the goal was full restoration by Sept. 22, and at 11 a.m. that day, a press release came out announcing that had been achieved. But was that fast enough? “No energy company can make a grid hurricane-proof,” says Bill Orlove, a spokesman for FPL.

Still, critics feel the powerful company endured little government oversight in the years before this hurricane hit, and utilities across the state now must deal with an increased level of scrutiny as residents imagine what might happen if a more powerful system strikes their communities in the future.

FPL, the largest private utility in the state of Florida, says Hurricane Irma, from the power provider’s point-of-view, proved historic. She was the first hurricane to cause outages in all 35 counties served by FPL, including Sarasota and Manatee. A record 4.4 million FPL customers out of 4.9 million served statewide lost power for some period of time, a result of storm surge, wind damage or flooding. Recovery would be made possible only with the help of contract workers who traveled to the state from as far off as Canada, company officials say, and with everything essentially returned to normal, they hope people view a 10-day bounceback from the storm with some credit. “We pulled together and completed the fastest restoration of the largest amount of people by any one utility in U.S. history,” said FPL President and CEO Eric Silagy in a statement.But many wondered why that type of outage could occur in the first place. In the past 10 years, FPL has invested $3 billion into “hardening” its electrical network in the state, hoping to better prepare after past storms that knocked out much of the network, like Hurricane Wilma in 2005. 

That so many lost power during Irma despite this investment has drawn criticism of both the utility company and the state agencies providing oversight. David Klement, who briefly served on the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC), feels political power struggles in Tallahassee failed to prioritize consumers in recent years. An appointee of Gov. Charlie Crist, Klement sat on the board when FPL sought a rate increase to raise $1.3 billion and only got the authorization to raise $75 million. Angry at the result, officials lobbied lawmakers to clear out some Crist appointees, and amid a particularly contentious time in Crist’s relationship with the Legislature, lawmakers chose not to confirm Klement’s appointment and he lost his spot on the board.

“There were advocates on the PSC who were looking out for consumer interests, and they were not confirmed,” Klement says.

That’s not to say everything falls on FPL. Klement notes he supported better funding for tree-trimming services to protect the power grid, but that never got support. Through the years, there have been chances to invest in programs that might have kept some freezers in operation in September, but that simply never happened. What could FPL have done? The company has been in a contentious debate with the South Florida community of Coral Gables over why so many trees remained near power lines; power officials say local ordinance prevented them from cutting back branches, while that community considers a lawsuit against the power company for leaving so many air conditioners without electricity. On the Gulf Coast, things haven’t turned so hostile. But Sarasota County Commissioner Paul Caragiulo says the entire community needs to have an in-depth conversation about improving its infrastructure network. The chairman of the county commission participated in daily media briefings around the storm and posted regular updates on power restoration over social media channels. But even the high-profile politician lost electricity at his own house for nine days.

“It seems a big chunk of this is vegetation,” Caragiulo says. While noting the environmentally aware Sarasota community remains somewhere that people love their trees and canopies, he says there needs to be a hard look at codes and requirements for keeping branches trimmed near power lines.

Orlove says that over the past 11 years, FPL has trimmed 5,330 miles of tree limbs and overgrown bush in Manatee County and 9,670 in Sarasota County, though it's the responsibility of local government to maintain environmental conditions. Still, the chief hindrance to power restoration in the region remained debris hitting lines and blocking roads, preventing crews from addressing problems in a more timely fashion.

So what happens from here? Longboat Key right now has embarked on a major effort to bury all of its power lines, and Orlove says FPL has embraced that plan. But officials warn that costly procedure may not be right for all communities, and may not be the energy savior many hope. Klement says he holds some skepticism whether burying power lines would truly be worth the cost. “When we discussed undergrounding wires, there were problems with that too,” he says of his time on the PSC. He notes that when a tree brings down an elevated power line, at least residents can see the break and report it, and linemen can easily find the source of the problem. When underground wires get flooded, it’s harder to find the place in need of repair.

And undergrounding proves more costly. Caragiulo notes that the island municipality will pay more than $800 per foot to bury wires along Gulf of Mexico Drive. That may work in a wealthy community like Longboat Key but would likely be cost-prohibitive in the entire county. Regardless, Orlove says FPL will happily work with any jurisdiction interested in bringing line underground, and that certainly helps in preventing the downing of lines by heavy trees or falling objects.  In the meantime, Orlove says the power company will keep focusing on the “hardening” process for utilities, especially on the main lines that carry the charge from power plants into communities. Whether by using steel power poles or reinforced wood ones where appropriate, that should mean the major conduits connecting communities to energy can weather most storms.

The weather has also increased frustration that Florida still offers little incentive to install solar panels on homes, and that property owners are still encouraged to hook into the grid for backup but gain nothing even when panels produce enough energy to supply the grid with power. Additionally, FPL in recent years has negotiated long-term exclusive franchise agreements with local jurisdictions, so the company will remain the source of power for most of the Gulf Coast, even when the power goes out.