updated 5/3/2006 2:54:49 PM ET 2006-05-03T18:54:49

Florida Power & Light Co. has started a 10-year project to harden its infrastructure to prepare for hurricanes, after critics said its power poles weren't maintained well enough to withstand storms.

Workers got the project rolling Tuesday when they set in the ground a thick, 55-foot concrete pole in Miami Beach. Its base, protected by a steel tube, went down 14 feet deep.

FPL engineers designed the system to withstand wind gusts of up to 150 mph, said Ron Flores, who is supervising the project to strengthen the main feeder line to the Mount Sinai Medical Center and Miami Heart Institute area. The concrete poles are replacing 54 much thinner, shorter wooden one, which go 7 feet deep.

The Miami Beach work is one of four projects that form the start of FPL's Storm Secure Plan, announced in January. Officials say it will toughen the grid so that it can withstand extreme-wind standards, which means up to 150 mph in parts of Miami-Dade County and up to 140 mph in parts of Broward County.

The other projects selected for initial hardening are: Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, the entry point for much of South Florida's gasoline; Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami and the port of Palm Beach and St. Mary's Medical Center in West Palm Beach.

The unit of FPL Group Inc. has yet to put a price tag on the plan, which will also include putting more lines underground, more pole inspections and increased tree cutting. The utility has said it won't seek higher rates to pay for the plan until 2009.

The plan helped calm frustration in the Legislature, which faced angry voters who lost power for weeks after Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma. Lawmakers then proposed a wide range of bills, including requirements for the utility to harden its system and to put lines underground. After FPL came up with its plan, those proposals faded.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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