CORAL GABLES — A class-action lawsuit filed earlier this month against Florida Power & Light Co. (FPL) by citizens angered at what they contend was the company’s failure to take preventive measures to deal with Hurricane Irma on Sept. 11 may be joined in litigation by the City of Coral Gables.
According to the lawsuit brief, which is asking for a jury trial, approximately 300,000 South Florida residents were still without power by Sept. 17.
Critics blasted the utility for what they said was its inability to get the power and lights back on in a timely manner and further alleged the company did not do all it could have to prepare beforehand for such a major storm.
“We all suffered inconvenience with widespread power outages and long delays by FPL to restore our power,” Raul Valdes-Fauli, mayor of Coral Gables, told the Florida Record in a written statement.
Valdes-Fauli called the power company’s behavior “monopolistic” and said the company achieved a profit of $1.7 billion last year by cost-cutting and cutting back on critical storm-preventive investments such as tree-trimming near power lines.
“This is what South Floridians don’t want to hear as they sit in the dark, sweltering without power,” Valdes-Fauli said.
Coral Gables city officials are considering whether to join in suing FPL over their handling of Hurricane Irma, and, according to staffers, have asked the city attorney to present a report to the Coral Gables City Commission, which earlier voted to consider a lawsuit.
The class-action suit filed on Sept. 18 by Octavio Fernandez on behalf of other Miami-Dade County residents alleged that FPL failed to properly upgrade its system after the last major storm (Hurricane Wilma in 2005) despite charging customers a monthly "storm fee" to make such improvements. The utility enacted a $400 million rate increase in 2017—with another $411 million in rate hikes to be phased in over the next three years based on prior approvals from the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC).
In addition to failing to do adequate tree removal near power lines before the storm, critics alleged that the company also failed to reposition an acceptable number of power lines underground where they would be protected. In addition, the allegation stated that the company made predictions on when power would be restored knowing the estimates could not be met.
“Rather than strengthening its (power) grid, the FPL instead spent millions influencing the state legislative process and exerting monopoly power through political contributions,” the lawsuit brief read.
Valdes-Fauli said FPL also neglected to reinforce rotted power poles. He called the estimates of when power would be restored "grossly inaccurate.”
“When people cling to hope of when life will be back to normal, FPL should more responsibly manage its communications during the wake of major storms,” he said.
Representatives of FPL's public and media affairs office were unavailable for comment as was Fernandez’s attorney Gonzalo R. Dorta of the Coral Gables-based Dorta Law Firm.
However, Richard Beltran, an FPL spokesman, said in an interview on Sept. 19 with ABC affiliate Local10.com interview that the possible Coral Gables suit was "frivolous" and an attempt by the city to gain preferential treatment. He said the FPL was tasked with taking care of all its customers, and Coral Gables threatening legal action is an attempt to unfairly shift blame on the utility for the city’s ineptitude. He said Coral Gables actually resisted attempts by the power company to trim back trees and make improvements to the electric system.
Fernandez and Dorta are demanding a jury trial be scheduled in the Eleventh Circuit Court for Miami-Dade County.