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PolitiFact FL: Biden said Obama spent hundreds of millions to bury power lines. That lacks evidence

A City of Tallahassee electrical worker assesses damage to power lines after a tree fell on Old St. Augustine, a canopy road, in Tallahassee, Fla., as Hurricane Idalia made landfall Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023.
Phil Sears
A City of Tallahassee electrical worker assesses damage to power lines after a tree fell on Old St. Augustine, a canopy road, in Tallahassee, Fla., as Hurricane Idalia made landfall Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023.

WLRN has partnered with PolitiFact to fact-check Florida politicians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning team seeks to present the true facts, unaffected by agenda or biases.

Frozen bottles of water, slushy popsicles and melting ice cream get you only so far when the power goes out in a hurricane.

After Hurricane Idalia knocked out power to about a half million northern Florida homes and businesses in late August, President Joe Biden said it would have been worse if the federal government hadn’t improved the state’s electrical grid.

"Under the Obama-Biden administration, we invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the state of Florida replacing wooden power poles with steel poles, and we buried these electric lines," Biden said at the White House Aug. 31.

Days later, Biden surveyed damage in Live Oak, Florida, where broken and downed power lines signaled widespread power outages that commonly follow hurricanes and tropical storms. Biden said that FEMA could in the future replace the wooden poles with steel poles.

We wondered if Biden was right about the earlier work: Did the Obama administration spend hundreds of millions to keep the lights on (and, most importantly, air conditioning running!) in Florida?

We contacted multiple federal, state and local government agencies in Florida. We did not find the figure Biden cited.

FEMA provides grants to bury power lines

Hurricanes cause multiple threats to electricity systems, including flooding and high winds. The U.S. Energy Department in 2020 found that weather-related outages cost from $25 billion to $70 billion a year.

Nationwide, most lines are above ground. States and utilities have sought ways to pay for bringing poles underground. Florida has hardened its electricity distribution system with stronger steel poles for the larger, high-voltage transmission lines, said Ed Hirs, who teaches energy economics at the University of Houston. Much of that work came after Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992.

Burying power lines can cost up to $1 million per mile — an expense that local and state governments have not wanted to cover. And underground lines can flood, said Joshua D. Rhodes, research scientist at University of Texas at Austin. However,an underground system results in "fewer points of failure than having 100s of miles of lines way up," Rhodes said.

A White House spokesperson referred us to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which sent us a spreadsheet of grants given to states over decades for electrical lines or poles mitigation.

None of the Florida grants were approved during the Obama-Biden administration. Most of the grants were obligated — federal jargon for approved — during Donald Trump’s administration. The Florida grants added up to about $38 million. For example, FEMA awarded the town of Palm Beach nearly $8.5 million to bury power lines, and thevillage of Golf was awarded nearly $1.7 million to remove utility poles and bury overhead electrical lines.

But other agencies spend on hurricane proofing, too. So, we kept looking.

HUD provided hazard mitigation grants to Florida following 2016 hurricanes

Utility crews set up new poles and utility wires.
Gerald Herbert
In this Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018 photo, utility crews set up new poles and utility wires in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Fla.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also gives hazard mitigation grants. A HUD spokesperson told us that the agency gave about $118 million for Florida after the 2016 hurricanes Hermine and Matthew.

The initial award, about $47 million for St. Johns County, was listed in a Federal Register notice during the last days of the Obama administration.

But the information we received from HUD did not specify how much money, if any, was spent on burying electrical lines or replacing wooden poles.

Florida, through subrecipients, used the money to repair storm-damaged infrastructure, build affordable housing and rehab homes, according to a statement HUD sent us. Burying electrical lines and replacing poles would qualify as eligible activities, although when the money was allocated, HUD prohibited using it to assist private utilities. That block is no longer in place.

The Florida Division of Emergency Management found one electrical project that received $500,000 during the Obama administration: an underground utility lines project in Coconut Creek, a city in Broward County. A city spokesperson confirmed the project.

We sent a summary of our findings about FEMA and HUD grants back to the White House for comment.

In response, the White House pointed to Obama’s 2009 announcement about $3.4 billion in grants being awarded nationwide through the 2009 stimulus act for smart electrical grid projects. Obama’s goal was updating the parts of the grid that handle transmission and distribution, which helps the systems respond to power outages. The second part was modernizing electricity on the customer's end, ideally so people could decide to use energy at off-peak times, when it's less expensive.

Florida Power & Light Co., the state’s largest utility, received $200 million to install smart meters, devices that show hour-by-hour energy pricing, in customers' homes. But nothing in the articlesthat the White House sent said that the money was for burying electrical lines or replacing wooden poles.

Florida has pursued some of this work on its own. In 2019, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law S.B. 796, which created a new process for utilities to pass along costs of burying lines, and other grid-strengthening projects, to consumers. Florida Power & Light has been buryingpower lines in various communities.

Florida Power & Light told the Sun Sentinel newspaper’s editorial board that the cost of burying the lines would be up to $35 billion. Florida Power & Light said online that about 45% of its distribution system is underground. That’s the same proportion for Duke Energy Corp., which has about 1.9 million accounts in Florida, a spokesperson told PolitiFact.

Our ruling

Biden said, "Under the Obama-Biden administration, we invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the state of Florida replacing wooden power poles with steel poles and we buried these electric lines."

The White House pointed to FEMA grants, which added up to far less than the amount Biden cited, and to smart electrical grid projects, which are not the same as burying power lines.

If Biden had said that during the Obama administration, the federal government invested hundreds of millions of dollars in electrical-related projects, he would have been on firmer ground. But that’s not what he said.

We rate this statement False.

Our Sources

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