Hurricane Ian Underscores Need for Utility Undergrounding

Utility wires spark fires in Naples, Florida

As one of the strongest hurricanes to make landfall in the United States, Hurricane Ian dealt a devastating blow to the western coast of Florida and other parts of the Southeast, killing 89 people in Florida alone, destroying homes, and leaving millions of people without power. In Florida, about 2.7 million people lost power, or about 25% of the state. 

Dramatic videos circulating on various news outlets showed downed utility wires starting fires in Naples, Florida, and other communties.

Many communities in the state face a long road to recovery. However, in areas where utility infrastructure is buried underground, the path is quicker. In a recent, NPR story, Florida Power & Light reported making “faster progress than anticipated” in restoring electricity, in part due to actions taken by Florida utilities to invest in resiliency. As the story notes:

‘Lee County Electric Cooperative spokeswoman Karen Ryan says the recovery has been made easier because more lines are being placed underground, and they’ve also been using transformers that are hardened for Florida weather.”

In another example, as reported by CNN, the Babcock Ranch community, located just 12 miles northeast of Fort Myers, also kept its power on thanks to its resiliency-first design. Babcock Ranch calls itself “America’s first solar-powered town” and boasts an innovative set of forward-thinking features: power and internet lines that are buried underground, streets that are designed to flood so that houses don’t, and native landscaping to help control storm water, plus an array of 700,000 solar panels providing power.

While grappling with the devastation in surrounding areas—and after springing into action to provide shelter and refuge to displaced Floridians—residents of the town cite their recent experience with this catastrophic storm as proof that an eco-conscious town can withstand a powerful hurricane. They also see their neighborhood as a model for future development. As one resident, Anthony Grande, stated, “It’s not what it was 20 or 25 years ago; the storms are getting bigger and bigger, and it’s no surprise because the warnings have all been there. I think Babcock Ranch’s future has gotten even brighter.”

As communities impacted by Hurricane Ian, and other weather events, seek to rebuild Scenic America stands ready to provide assistance. New federal resources for utility undergrounding were recently made available in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed last year, thanks to Scenic America’s advocacy work, including a provision amending the Stafford Act to allow FEMA relief dollars to support undergrounding initiatives.

“Our hearts go out to all of the people whose lives were upended by this horrific storm,” said Scenic America President Mark Falzone. “As they begin to rebuild, we hope that they can tap into new tools and resources and look to models like Babcock Ranch to build safer and more resilient communities.”