Monday, November 20, 2017
Business

Half of Irma's power outages restored, but lights still out for 3.3 million Florida homes, businesses

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The lights are back for more than half of those who lost power during Hurricane Irma's trek through Florida.

But that's little consolation for the third of the state that remained without air conditioning or electricity well into the third day after the storm.

RELATED: How long will it take for power to be restored?

As of 6 p.m. Wednesday, just under 3.3 million energy customers were still in the dark as utilities were mounting one of the biggest power restoration efforts in the country's history..

At the peak of the outage on Monday, 6.7 million customers — roughly 64 percent of the state — were powerless.

Who's still out where?

The highest number of power outages are in South Florida, where about 398,000 Florida Power and Light customers in Miami-Dade and nearly 294,000 in Broward remain without power.

Duke Energy reported more than 584,000 accounts without power Wednesday evening, including about 186,000 in Pinellas and nearly 45,000 in Pasco.

Tampa Electric has just over 177,000 still without power — about 141,000 of those in Hillsborough.

Duke Energy officials said they expect to have power restored for essentially all customers in Pinellas and Pasco counties by midnight Friday. Those in Citrus, Hernando and Polk counties might have to wait as long as midnight Sunday.

Almost all Tampa Electric households should get power back by Sunday, Tampa Electric president Gordon Gillette said.

Pinellas County was the hardest hit in Tampa Bay, with almost 80 percent of the county powerless immediately after the storm. That's roughly 400,000 Duke Energy customers.

Duke Energy spokeswoman Ana Gibbs said parts of the county are equipped with upgraded "smart grid" technology, which reroutes power in instances where lines are down or substations are affected. But because of the mass outages and overall damage, there was no way to keep the grid system up through the hurricane.

"Our focus is safety, making repairs that will keep people safe first," Gibbs said.

Frustration grows

After three days of no power, Fred Colucci was feeling fed up.

Driving by a parking lot of empty Duke Energy trucks off Lawerence Avenue in New Port Richey seemed like a sick joke.

"They have a station here and have 15, maybe 17 trucks just sitting there parked," Colucci said Wednesday. "I haven't seen one Duke Energy truck driving around Pasco County."

What makes it worse is that Duke Energy's online reporting tool isn't working. Gibbs said the outage numbers aren't updating properly. Customers have also expressed frustrations, saying the site gives no indication whether the company is aware of a particular outage or explain what Duke Energy might be doing about it.

Trina Jorgensen's parents have been living without power in Weeki Wachee since a tree took down a power line on their street during Irma Sunday night. They appear to be the only ones in their area without power, Jorgensen said.

Jorgensen said they've called the electric company, Withlacoochee River Electric, about the outage but feel helpless from the response they've gotten. Officials inspected it and said it should be restored that day. It wasn't.

Jorgensen was furious when the electric company told her mom that if they cannot repair the line to the house, she will have to pay for a technician herself.

"My parents are both retired and on a fixed income," Jorgensen said. "They have my uncle, who is disabled, with one leg and in a wheelchair living with them. This is not the kind of inconvenience they need in their lives."

Patrick Kennedy, who lives in the Countryside area of Clearwater, suggests those without power borrow a generator from a friend to catch at least a few nights of air conditioning. That's what he did, along with mixing up some Moscow mules and trying to cool off by the pool. He was relieved to get an automated call from Duke Energy saying power will be restored by Friday.

"I can't wait for that glorious moment when you hear the A/C kick on," he said. "It's something my born-and-bred Florida folks can appreciate."

My neighbor has power so why don't I?

With two-thirds of the state buzzing with electricity, those without are begrudgingly eyeing their well-lit neighbors and wondering why their home is still dark and muggy.

It could be a number of reasons, power officials say. Technicians prioritize outages in an effort to get the greatest number of people back online as soon as possible. Energy companies start with transmission lines, with substations next and distribution lines for specific homes after that.

"It could be that we've fixed the transmission line in front or behind your house, but the distribution line to your specific house still has a problem," said Gibbs, Duke Energy's spokeswoman.

Gillette, Tampa Electric's president, said the number of households to regain lights and air conditioning will go up quickly over the next couple of days, then level out as they handle broken poles and other damage that takes longer to fix.

There are also safety reasons linked to this — grid areas serving hospitals, traffic lights and law enforcement naturally come first.

Cherie Jacobs, spokeswoman for Tampa Electric parent company TECO, recommends customers re-report their outage if they notice their neighbors have power by they don't. Same if their power came on after the storm but shut back off — a not uncommon problem as technicians work on repairs.

That's what happened when the Alafia River flooded and caused TECO to de-energize the lines as a safety precaution.

TECO estimates that full restoration in Hillsborough and Polk counties will require 280,000 working hours, Jacobs said.

Leaders look to improve future recovery times

While thousands of Tampa Bay residents are fuming over — and sweating through — the power outages, area politicians are mostly supportive of efforts by Duke Energy, TECO and others to get the community cooled down and powered up in a timely manner.

Mayor Rick Kriseman said that he's been in constant communication with Duke executives about the outages, including the company's CEO. He was reluctant to criticize the company's efforts so far, saying Duke had brought in additional workers to help.

"All of us would love for it to be done sooner, I think they would love for it to be done sooner," Kriseman said. "I'm just going to be vigilant."

St. Petersburg City Council member Steve Kornell doesn't know if Duke could have done a better job, but wants to find out. He placed a new business item on the council's agenda before Hurricane Irma to discuss how to improve emergency preparedness for natural disasters. The council will consider Kornell's request at Thursday's meeting.

"It's important to keep it all in perspective with the huge amounts of people out of power," Kornell said. "But is there something we can do to make it better? I certainly want to ask that question."

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he thinks TECO is doing "the very best they can given the magnitude of the outages," but would like to see more communication between the electric company and its customers.

Once power is restored, he'd also like the company to look into hardening its connections with the city's waste water facilities. Power outages at those facilities stopped the pumps which caused overflows that otherwise could have been avoided, Buckhorn said.

"I can't afford to have sewage or semi-treated sewage flowing through the streets because of a power outage," Buckhorn said. "Those are the types of things in the aftermath that we need to review."

While the utility companies' current focus remains solely on getting the lights back on, Director of Energy Studies at University of Florida Ted Kury said Irma is certainly going to change some utility practices in Florida.

"One thing I'm hearing from a lot of folks up and down the state are the words, 'Never seen this before,'" Kury said. "Everyone at the utilities is focused solely on getting the lights back on, and they're not going to be talking about political process yet. But in the coming weeks as power is restored, those conversations will start."

Staff writer Charlie Frago contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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