Meet Joe Blackout

If you live on 79th Street, you may as well forget about turning out the lights. They're probably already off.

The dull blue light from the neon sign above the entrance to Reef Bait and Tackle barely cuts through the dusk and rain on NE 79th Street. The John F. Kennedy Causeway can be seen dimly rising over the bay just ahead. Inside the shop Jack Reeves taps on a calculator, frowning in concentration. His calloused fingertip points to the number 2124. "There," he says. "That's what I've lost this year alone in dollars. I've lost another $300 to $400 in ice, but the ice company made it up to me."

Reeves is talking about power outages. Every time the juice goes off, the pumps stop and his fresh shrimp, pinfish, and sardines die.

The 58-year-old, dressed in jeans and a blue work shirt, morosely considers the rain. "It's one of those situations where you don't even call because you get the big runaround."

Charles Kluck, a stocky fellow in a green T-shirt, walks in, orders some frozen mullet, then picks up on the conversation. "You talking about the power outages? It's horrendous over here. I've lived here 51 years and the last 5 or 6 it's been really bad," Kluck says. "Since the first of the year, I must have experienced eight outages. One of them lasted two days. During the hurricane we were out three days." He's talking about Hurricane Georges, which missed Miami but sent strong winds through the city in September.

Walk along NE 79th Street and you hear a litany of complaints from inconvenienced homeowners and angry businesspeople. Philippe Boutemy, co-owner of Foods International Specialties, a wholesale bakery, cites roughly ten serious outages in the two years he's been in the neighborhood. Some of those power failures forced him to close the business for the day and call in workers during the weekend. "But I never call [the power company] because I am so busy," Boutemy says.

FPL spokesman Bill Swank says the neighborhood is not a known trouble spot. "We just don't have any data that would substantiate that as a problem area," he says. The standard is high for such areas in South Florida. While some outages are simply the cost of living in the subtropics -- hurricanes, the population boom, and fast-growing vegetation strangling equipment -- many stem from system defects, according to the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities.

PSC Commissioner Joe Garcia knows firsthand about the problems Miamians face. He commutes from Miami Beach, where, he says, the outages have been "just horrible," to Tallahassee. The Miami Beach problems, he explains, stems from a building boom straining old lines. Additionally the company recently moved its substation, the point from which it distributes electricity.

"We at the Public Service Commission saw a problem in reliability" with FPL, Garcia says. "We called the company in [this past year] and they came up with some solutions."

In January of this year FPL committed $360 million over the next three years to fix problems throughout its coverage area, roughly half of Florida. "This has been an overall problem, but the company moved to remedy the situation to our satisfaction," Garcia says.

Back on 79th Street, where Reeves and others are resigned to the outages as a way of life, new business owner Chris Stray is less forgiving. Stray opened Mr. G's U.S.A. Restaurant at 930 NE 79th St. in August. Since then, he claims to have lost $10,000 in spoiled food, ruined equipment, and revenue. He recently complained to the PSC.

"I'm afraid to keep a lot of food here at the restaurant. I keep the bare minimum here because I can't afford to take another hit," says Stray, a tall man with black hair. He claims the stress of the situation has affected his health. He is trying to drum up interest in a class-action lawsuit, he says.

The first time he suffered a prolonged outage was after Hurricane Georges. Stray claims the power was out from Thursday to Sunday. The following week, there were two days of darkness. Stray asserts he's been dealing with brownouts and outages ever since.

"The engineer told me the wiring's bad from my building to the pole. So they replaced it. But there are still surges. Another engineer told me they needed to rework the power in this whole neighborhood," Stray laments.

Swank counters that FPL records show only two outages: one during Hurricane Georges that lasted 30 hours and another, caused by a blown transformer on October 3, that lasted 28 hours. Crews checked out both. "Those are the only two outages reported on this form," Swank says, referring to the FPL response to Stray's complaint.

Though businesses can purchase insurance for power outages, both Stray and Reeves say it's too costly for them. "When you're a small businessman, you can't afford high-priced insurance," Reeves says, adding that he came up with his own solution. "I just bought a second generator.

 
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