Civic Association Analysis Shows Surge in Electrical Incidents

A Civic Association Special Report by: Paul Scicchitano.

Civic Association Director Warren Belmar was asleep in his bedroom on the third floor of the Sun and Surf Condominium when something woke him up early in the morning of Oct. 8.

Warren Belmar“There was a flickering and the electricity went out,” Mr. Belmar recalled. “Then it came back on. Then it flickered off again. I think it came back on one more time. The next thing I knew we had an explosion which left us in the dark.”

Mr. Belmar’s building at 130 Sunrise Avenue was equipped with an emergency generator that provided power to the hallways, stairwells and elevators but none of the residents — some of them elderly — had any way of knowing whether the 5:37 a.m. alarm signaled a fire or worse as they evacuated the seven-story structure still cloaked in darkness.

While there were no reported injuries at the Sun and Surf or the other affected locations, the explosion has raised new questions over the safety of Town residents.  Town and utility officials acknowledge they are working diligently to stay ahead of an aging infrastructure — miles of gas pipes, power lines, and water mains that date back to the Eisenhower administration in some cases — well before the advent of the Internet or even color television.

Moreover, a Palm Beach Civic Association analysis, just completed, of Palm Beach Fire Rescue data covering a 14-year period between 2002 and 2015 shows that there has been a significant upsurge in the number of serious and non-serious calls involving down power lines, electrical poles, transformers, or vault fires in recent years while the number of gas leaks or natural gas fires has remained fairly constant.

Potential for Injuries

Sun And SurfFortunately, the October electrical explosion is believed to have occurred in a power feed to an underground Florida Power & Light vault in the rear of the Sun and Surf rather than in the condominium building itself. But the force of the explosion sent a manhole cover and bricks in a 10 x 10-foot area hurling through the air, which could have caused serious injuries to residents, if it had happened a few hours later.

“The Sun and Surf complex thankfully had no physical injuries,” according to Mr. Belmar, who is president of his 104-unit condominium association, one of two buildings that make up the Sun and Surf complex. “Cars, balconies, and surrounding area were damaged from the bricks that flew in the air as a result of the explosion underground.”

FPL spokesman Bill Orlove confirmed that nearly 1,400 customers lost power for as many as 14 hours in some cases following the explosion behind Mr. Belmar’s building.  The Civic Association offices in the Paramount Building was one of them.

There have been 26 electrical incidents thus far in 2015. That's a significant increase in Palm Beach from recent years.

The spokesman declined further comment saying that the incident was under investigation. He referred additional questions involving the power utility’s infrastructure in Palm Beach to FPL’s external affairs department which failed to respond to Civic Association inquires.

‘Far Safer’

Darrel DonattoDespite the aging infrastructure, Palm Beach Deputy Fire Rescue Chief Darrel Donatto insisted that Town residents are “far safer than residents in most communities” though he acknowledged that incidents can happen.

“Anywhere you have energized electrical lines, there’s risk involved with them but that’s a normal acceptable level of risk,” he explained. “The most significant risk is always, always people — people doing things that create a hazard. It’s not as much the infrastructure. It’s generally people running into things with cars, people digging up underground stuff unintentionally. Those things create greater risk than the infrastructure system that’s in place today.”



Gas Line Replacements

Gas Flames Palm Beach HomeBonnie Erdek, a spokeswoman for Florida Public Utilities, said that the gas utility is replacing old metal pipes in Palm Beach with polyethylene coated pipes as appropriate. “We want to replace what we believe is aged piping but it’s not flawed piping,” she explained. “It’s old.”

In November 2014, an 83-year-old resident, Allan Scherer, suffered minor burns in the 400 block of Primavera Avenue following a major gas explosion and fire at his home.

“After several minutes of fire control, crews discovered in the Southeast corner of the garage an open pipe omitting natural gas,” stated the Palm Beach Fire Rescue incident report. “Further investigation revealed an additional source of natural gas leaking under pressure through a phone fiber optics line into the structure.”

While not commenting on that specific incident, Ms. Erdek insisted that Palm Beach residents need not necessarily be concerned by the age of the gas lines. “I don’t think that the residents need to be worried or nervous,” she said.

‘Foolish Not to be Somewhat Concerned’

Sally Morris, general manager of the Palm Beach Biltmore Condominiums on Bradley Place, which is not far from Mr. Belmar’s building, said that her 11-story building also lost power for a few hours the same day as the explosion but she did not know if it was a coincidence.

“Our building was not affected,” she explained. “It would be foolish not to be somewhat concerned especially with the incident that happened down the street.”

But the more than 100 residents who live at the Biltmore have grown accustomed to “sporadic” service interruptions.

“The residents of the Biltmore have concerns about the electrical service to the building and that is why they are in favor of the underground wiring,” according to Ms. Morris. “Their concern is if there was a major event, how long it would take to get everything back in working order.”

PBCA Analysis of Incidents

Fire evacuates residents at Palm Beach-Sun-SurfAccording to the PBCA analysis of incidents, the Town experienced 409 serious and non-serious gas leaks or natural gas fires in the 14-year period with 63 being the most in any single year back in 2005 — the same year that Hurricanes Katrina, Wilma, Rita, and Dennis rattled Florida, according to Fire Rescue data and historical storm data maintained by the National Hurricane Center.

But with respect to electrical incidents, the Town experienced 290 serious and non-serious calls involving down power lines, electrical poles, transformers or vault fires over the same period. The single highest number of 49 incidents was recorded in 2004, which was the year that Hurricane Jeanne struck Florida. The second highest number was recorded in 2005 when 40 such incidents were logged.

In recent years, the Town recorded 11 electrical incidents in 2010, 15 in 2011, 12 in 2012, 15 in 2013, and 14 in 2014.

However, there have been 26 electrical incidents thus far in 2015, more than any year since the year Hurricane Jeanne struck Florida and the year that the four hurricanes bore down on the Sunshine State.

In contrast, the Town logged 28 gas-related calls in 2010, nine in 2011, 23 in 2012, 40 in 2013, 29 in 2014 and 20 thus far in 2015.

Questions Raised

Mr. Belmar said the electrical incident outside his building has raised questions about safety on the island, particularly in the case of FPL equipment.

He asked:

  • “What is FPL’s ongoing program for monitoring their underground lines and their vaults?  
  • What was the cause of the October 8th underground explosion?  
  • How many underground vaults are there in Palm Beach?  
  • What is FPL planning to do to avoid future underground vault explosions?
  • And how does this incident tie in to the underground utilities project that the Town is undertaking right now?”

Nothing Abnormal this Year?

Deputy Fire Rescue Chief Donatto said that he is not overly concerned by the surge in the number of electrical incidents this year.

“We haven’t seen anything that’s abnormal,” he explained. “Sometimes you get a little trend up and a little trend down.  But we’re keeping an eye on it.”

He blamed the salt air, weather and island vegetation for most electrical incidents. “You get the salt blowing off the ocean,” he said. “Generally they are weather related of some kind.”

Improvement Program

Force MainThe aging infrastructure on the island has not escaped the attention of Town officials, who have authorized an accelerated capital improvement program to make necessary renovations and improvements.

“People shouldn’t be inherently worried because of an aging infrastructure,” added Paul Brazil, the Town’s director of public works. “It is typically a reliability issue and then the service provider, knowing he has a reliability issue, goes out and starts replacing whatever components of the system that they need to . . . That’s long before typically it’s a safety concern.”

The improvement program consolidates what would have been 20 years of improvements to the Town.  Mr. Brazil acknowledged that much of the Town’s utility infrastructure is slated for replacement or has already been replaced under the accelerated program.

“There was another capital program that happened in town about 50 or 60 years ago. I don’t know what that program looked like but a lot of our force mains all went in at the same time. A lot of our drainage lines went in at the same time. Pump stations —  both sanitary and storm —  were constructed at the same time,” Brazil explained. “I don’t know what that program was but the infrastructure is pretty much all the same age. Knowing that we’re doing all of this work, I feel very sorry for the person in my role 50 or 60 years from now because he’s going to have to do the same exact thing.”

Broken Water Mains

In addition to the explosion, there have also been two broken water mains, including a significant break at Bradley Place and a less significant break on Island Drive, acknowledged Scott Kelly, assistant city administrator for West Palm Beach, which provides water services to Palm Beach. Bradley Place was closed for a time while the water line was being replaced.

“It didn’t cause extended outages,” Mr. Kelly said of the broken mains. “It was the fact that there was large property damage because the line was a large water main. Since that time we’ve evaluated all the lines around there.”

Pleasantly Surprised

Everglades Island Palm Beach bridgeMr. Kelly said that officials employed leak detection equipment to identify other potential trouble spots. “We’ve gone through the whole island and done leak detection,” he said. “We have a list of fire hydrants that we need to replace. We’re looking at the age of it from the standpoint of how many breaks and whether lines need to be replaced.”

Overall, the assessment turned up only one surprise to him.

“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be which is encouraging,” he observed. “Just because a line is old doesn’t necessarily mean that it is failing. There are some lines that could be 50 years old in good condition. There could be lines that are 20 years old that are in bad condition.”

Mr. Kelly said that officials also evaluated the quality of water and whether it is “aesthetically pleasing” to residents while planning for various threats such as hurricanes and whether the system has adequate capacity to withstand a sustained drought.

“We look at the likelihood and consequence of failure of infrastructure,” Mr. Kelly added, noting that officials have a system to rank threats. “Does this mean we’re never going to have more water main breaks? No, we’re going to have water main breaks. Things are going to happen but we’re going to try to minimize that and look for protection where the highest risk infrastructure will get our most attention.”

By the time planned improvements to the water system are completed sometime in 2017, the system will have achieved at least one major distinction.

“We didn’t really have to raise rates and we came up with the highest level of public health protection against pathogens of any water system in the state of Florida,” Kelly said. “It’s got the highest level once we complete this project.”

Risk to Residents

No matter how many projects are undertaken by the Town and utilities there will always be some risk to residents.

Paul Brazil“There will always be the possibility of something unusual happening that causes an incident —  somebody digging into a gas main, a transformer coming into contact with a tree and the transformer explodes,” acknowledged Mr. Brazil. “I’m not sure why that transformer exploded in that vault … but those are unusual things.”

Mr. Brazil said that the accelerated capital improvement project is on track for completion in the next year or two unless it gets delayed by a proposed project to move overhead lines underground.

“It only makes sense to do it at the same time,” he said. “If there’s going to be a big gap in time, I need to go ahead and finish the accelerated capital work and let the undergrounding happen on its own schedule.”