The Staying Power of Utilities

Powerless? It's become a literal term in southern Florida since Hurricane Katrina blew through on Thursday. But yesterday, FPL Group (NYSE: FPL  ) , which serves Florida, announced that it had restored power to 90% of its affected customers.

I happen to be in the minority. As of yesterday, I was among the remaining 10% who are still living off battery-powered radios and the joys of Sterno-fueled cooking. Now, I realize that Miami got off easy. If I have to sweat it out -- in every sense of the word -- for a few more days, that's OK. It's a minor inconvenience compared with the devastation Katrina caused after she left my peninsular state and barreled toward New Orleans in a much more potent form earlier this week. I would rather be powerless than homeless -- or worse, lifeless.

FPL had 1.45 million accounts lose power after Katrina hit Florida last week. It expects that the remaining 149,000 homes still without juice to be back up by no later than Friday night. Eight days to recover from what was then a Category 1 storm certainly isn't earning FPL's recovery efforts a whole lot of praise from the steaming locals.

When Katrina made landfall on Monday, customers of Entergy (NYSE: ETR  ) , Cleco (NYSE: CNL  ) , and Southern (NYSE: SO  ) joined the ranks of the FPL powerless. Yes, most utility stocks are publicly traded. They tend to be the turf of income investors since they are steady producers, paying up the bulk of their profits in generous dividend distributions.

All four of these companies yield at least 2.7% and are trading near their 52-week highs. The reason their share prices have held firm despite the disruption is that customers are pretty much a captive audience. That doesn't mean the power companies can abuse that privilege, though. They are highly regulated companies, in most cases to the point where they are barely able to grow.

However, that regulation is also why credit rating agencies didn't come down hard on the companies despite the costly restoration efforts and the fact that their quarters may come in a bit lighter than originally planned because of the widespread outages.

My power went out last Thursday. Living in the tree-lined tropical splendor of Coral Gables, I sort of figured I would be one of the last ones to recover from the area's downed power grid. I had to negotiate a maze of toppled ficus, oak, and palm trees just to get out last Friday morning.

Recently, we've covered the impact of Hurricane Katrina on airlines, casinos, and insurance providers. I figured that a utility perspective was in order. Readers of our Income Investor newsletter service may have come to value the sector, especially given its yield-rich luster. The affected stocks in the sector? Let's just say that they have more bark -- and deeper roots -- than a displaced ficus in Coral Gables.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is grateful to just be powerless, in light of the damage that Katrina brought on elsewhere. He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story.The Fool has a disclosure policy. He is also part of theRule Breakersnewsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.


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