Business

The Leaning Utility Pole of Coconut Grove

Artist conception
Artist conception
For the past three years, Coconut Grove resident Jay Flynn and his wife awoke each morning to a daunting sight: a Florida Power & Light (FPL) utility pole just across the property line in their neighbor's backyard, tilting at a precarious angle over the Flynns' metal roof.

"It's just like you look at it, and you just stop breathing for a minute," Flynn tells New Times. "I looked at this pole and I'm telling you, it's leaning like 15 or 20 degrees."

The neighbor declined to comment for this story, but Flynn notes that the adult members of that household, which includes small children, shared his and his wife's safety concerns.

FPL, however, did not.

It took countless phone calls before the utility dispatched an electrician to assess the pole's condition, Flynn says. And when the company finally did turn up, the leaning pole was not replaced. Instead, it was anchored to the remains of a decrepit pole alongside it.

"It was scary the way it was leaning, especially with a big transformer on top of it," Flynn recalls, adding that when he asked why the utility wasn't replacing the pole, the electrician told him "they didn't see a problem."

That verdict did not age gracefully.

The weekend of June 4, a powerful tropical weather system dumped more than ten inches of rain on Miami. More storms the following Wednesday knocked out power at some homes in Coconut Grove, including the Flynns' house.

Flynn says he read online on June 8 that power would be restored around 5 a.m. A few hours prior to that, he ventured outside to see whether any FPL trucks were in the neighborhood. The first thing he noticed: the harsh scent of something burning.

"I smelled burning wood like the Everglades fire," Flynn recounts. It turned out the leaning utility pole had finally fallen, severing a powerline that singed one of his neighbor's trees.
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After the storm: FPL finally sent out a crew to shore up the old pole temporarily.
Photos courtesy of Jay Flynn
"This electrical wire had fallen against a palm tree in my neighbor's yard and completely burned through it. [My neighbor] had removed the tree, but there were other trees that kept the pole from falling completely," Flynn says. "Had it fallen completely, the wire would have hit our metal roof, and I just have to wonder what that would have done."

Power was restored to the Flynns' house and others in the neighborhood the next day, but the fallen pole still was not replaced. Instead, FPL temporarily shored it up by bolting on an angled wooden support.

"We were promised follow-up within a week," Flynn says, explaining that he was told a tree-trimming crew would have to clear the debris before a new pole could be installed. "Not only did that not happen, but repeated follow-up calls to FPL to get something to happen were met with delays and excuses like, 'Well, the problem is this involves two different departments and they’re not communicating too well.' Or, 'I’m sorry, that’s not done in this department, call this other number,'" he adds.

He says a crew came by on June 23, when no one was home — though they knew his schedule — and left a note saying they couldn't locate the pole.

"When [FPL's] 'vegetation people' were here just after the storm, they cut a minimum of branches — I’d point out branches that were literally on the lines — and said another crew would come to clean up, which never happened. They sat in their trucks for an hour talking, waited until quitting time, then left."

The utility, Flynn points out, is responsible for trimming vegetation that interferes with utility poles.

FPL finally started the process of replacing the defunct pole on June 29. Flynn theorizes that they were prompted by his neighbor's threats to involve media outlets and take legal action. The job was finished on July 6.
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It took three years, a torrential rainstorm, and a month of missed connections, but Jay Flynn and his neighbor finally have a new utility pole.
Photo by Ajhada Gabriel
"FPL has procedures in place to ensure that our poles are safe and secure for our customers and employees," FPL stated in a comment to New Times on July 1, before the repair was completed. "A new pole has already been installed. We are in the process of removing the previous pole, which has been secured and does not pose a safety or power reliability issue."

New Times subsequently followed up with the utility to request comment on the specific problems Flynn and his neighbor faced in the years leading up to the June storm and the weeks that followed, as well as the chronology of work on the damaged pole. A utility spokesman provided the following statement:

"FPL has procedures in place to ensure that our poles are safe and secure for our customers and employees. We inspect each of our distribution poles on an eight-year cycle and replace or upgrade any pole that does not meet our standards for safety and reliability.

"Late on the evening of June 8, we responded to calls about a power outage in Coconut Grove. Our crew discovered a downed power line caused by falling vegetation. The crew determined that the pole was leaning and recommended replacing the pole and trimming vegetation in the area. Repairs to the power line were completed June 9.

"While waiting for the installation of the new pole, FPL took steps to ensure the old pole did not pose a safety threat. The new pole was installed June 30 and overhead facilities were transferred from the old pole. After some additional line transfer work was completed July 5, the old pole was removed."
When it comes to reliability, FPL is a perennial contender for industry consultancy PA Consulting's ReliabilityOne Award, winning the honor six out of seven times between 2015 and 2021.

Suffice to say Jay Flynn isn't impressed.

"It shouldn't take two neighbors to make this many calls and still have to wait a month in hurricane season to get this done."

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"My dealings with FPL have been absolute nightmares," Flynn says. "With a company making this much money, it shouldn't take two neighbors to make this many calls and still have to wait a month in hurricane season to get this done."

Though the experience left an unpleasant taste, Flynn hastens to point out that some of the FPL representatives he dealt with were diligent and understanding and "had their heart in the right place. They cut through all the bureaucracy, offered zero excuses, and were most instrumental in getting this problem fixed," he says of his dealings with two FPL representatives.

He places the blame for his debacle on FPL's status as a monopoly.