A year ago, Palm Beach County traffic was in chaos.
Hurricane Irma left the county’s traffic-signal system in shambles. About 60 percent of the county’s 14,500 traffic lights either lost power or were damaged, including at some major intersections, county engineering officials said.
The result was frustration, road rage and a flurry of crashes that made driving treacherous in the days after the storm.
Fast-forward a year and those in charge of keeping the traffic lights flashing green, yellow and red say they are ready if a major storm hits before hurricane season ends in November.
“We are responsible for 1,200 intersections which is nearly 98 percent of all the intersections in the county,” said David Ricks, director of the Engineering and Public Works Department, who oversees a staff of 400. “It’s really a huge responsibility.”
To prepare, work crews have inspected virtually every traffic light in the county, checking the wiring, insulation and other components of the signals “to verify their reliability,” said Mo Al-Turk, director of the county’s traffic division.
The county’s purchase of 10 generators will also aid traffic if a storm hits, officials said. Those generators — which give the county a total of 24 to work with — would be placed at critical, high-volume intersections to keep traffic flowing in case of a blackout.
Ricks said his department works with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office so that deputies guard the generators, allowing the engineering staff to concentrate on repairs following a storm.
Also boosting the state of readiness is a reserve of 600 traffic signal kits, which include all the components needed for a working traffic light.
One major concern for traffic officials are 48 intersections around Palm Beach County that must have their signals rebuilt following damage from Irma. The county is requesting funds from FEMA to begin the work.
None is considered critical, but Al-Turk said the issue is “a nightmare for us. In a big storm, they will be the first ones to go down.”
Officials remind drivers that all the preparations in the world won’t cause traffic signals to continue operating if a hurricane knocks out electrical power.
A day after Irma hit, it was a challenge to drive anywhere in the county without running into a string of lights gone dark by blackouts, not damage.
Intersections — like those at Forest Hill Boulevard and Military Trail in suburban West Palm Beach or Glades Road and State Road 7 in suburban Boca Raton — that can be dangerous when traffic signals are functioning properly seemed particularly unsafe after Irma.
Within two days of Irma’s arrival, 90 percent of the county’s traffic signals were operating, Ricks said.
The expectation is that work over the past year will translate into a quicker recovery.
“There is nothing we can do to prevent (storm damage) from happening, so what we do is be proactive,” Al-Turk said.