Florida pre­pares for days — and maybe weeks — with­out power

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY PA­TRI­CIA SUL­LI­VAN, MARK BER­MAN AND KATIE ZEZIMA

cape coral, fla. — Mil­lions of Florid­i­ans grap­pled with the af­ter­math of Hur­ri­cane Irma on Tues­day, con­fronting a swel­ter­ing re­al­ity: Nearly half of Florida still lacked elec­tric­ity, and for some of them, the lights might not come back on for days or even weeks.

“We un­der­stand what it means to be in the dark,” said Robert Gould, vice pres­i­dent and chief com­mu­ni­ca­tions of­fi­cer for Florida Power & Light (FPL), the state’s largest util­ity. “We un­der­stand what it means to be hot and with­out air con­di­tion­ing. We will be restor­ing power day and night.”

But, he ac­knowl­edged, “this is go­ing to be a very un­com­fort­able time.”

Across the na­tion’s third-most­pop­u­lous state, that dis­com­fort played out in homes that were silent with­out the usual thrum of per­pet­ual air con­di­tion­ing. It meant re­frig­er­a­tors were un­able to cool milk, laun­dry ma­chines were un­able to clean clothes, and, for the par­tic­u­larly young and old, dan­ger was po­ten­tially present in a state where the tem­per­a­tures can range from warm to sti­fling.

Even for those who had power, some were strug­gling to main­tain cell­phone ser­vice or In­ter­net ac­cess, send­ing Florid­i­ans into tree-rid­dled streets in an ef­fort to spot a few pre­cious bars of sig­nal to con­tact loved ones.

“It’s a mess, a real mess. The big­gest is­sue is power,” said Bill Bar­nett, mayor of Naples, on Florida’s Gulf Coast. “We just need power. It’s 92 de­grees, and the sun is out, and it’s smok­ing out there.”

Util­ity com­pa­nies made progress as they un­der­took a mas­sive re­cov­ery ef­fort, restor­ing power to some. At the out­age’s peak, the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity said, about 15 mil­lion Florid­i­ans — an as­ton­ish­ing 3 out of 4 state res­i­dents — lacked power.

Through­out the day Tues­day, state of­fi­cials grad­u­ally low­ered the num­ber of cus­tomers with­out power, drop­ping it to 4.7 mil­lion by Tues­day evening from 6.5 mil­lion a day ear­lier. Be­cause each power com­pany ac­count can rep­re­sent mul­ti­ple peo­ple, the sheer num­ber of res­i­dents with­out elec­tric­ity was mas­sive: Go­ing by the Home­land Se­cu­rity es­ti­mates, at one point, Irma had knocked out power to 1 of ev­ery 22 Amer­i­cans.

It would take time be­fore all of them had elec­tric­ity again. Duke En­ergy Florida said it would re­store power to most cus­tomers by Sun­day, a week af­ter Irma made its first land­fall in the state. Some harder-hit ar­eas could take longer due to the re­build­ing ef­fort.

Gould said that FPL, which pow­ers about half the state, ex­pected cus­tomers on Florida’s east coast to have power back by the end of the week­end. Peo­ple in western Florida, closer to Irma’s path, should have it back by Sept. 22. That es­ti­mate does not in­clude places with se­vere flood­ing or tor­nado dam­age, he said, and those ar­eas could face a longer wait to be able to switch on the lights.

Florid­i­ans re­acted to the out­ages eclec­ti­cally. Some wel­comed the ab­sence of per­pet­ual air con­di­tion­ers. Oth­ers flocked to their lo­cal malls for a respite from the heat.

“There’s no power at home, so we might as well just stay here and stay cool,” said Amanda Brack, who was with her son, Gavin, while walk­ing through a Brook­stone at the Gal­le­ria shop­ping mall in Fort Laud­erdale.

Blake Deer­hog had walked to the mall from his pow­er­less and steamy apart­ment in nearby Vic­to­ria Park, trekking some 20 min­utes in the sti­fling heat and hu­mid­ity af­ter he learned it would be open.

“This is def­i­nitely bet­ter than be­ing back at my apart­ment,” he said, adding that he planned to spend the af­ter­noon there.

The out­ages also caused ris­ing alarm in some places. Here in Cape Coral, an as­sisted-care fa­cil­ity for pa­tients with de­men­tia and mem­ory im­pair­ment who shel­tered in place dur­ing the storm went with­out power for three days, as el­derly pa­tients suf­fered in the ris­ing heat.

The south­west Florida fa­cil­ity, Cape Coral Shores, had 20 pa­tients stay dur­ing the storm as part of an agree­ment with state and lo­cal of­fi­cials be­cause the emer­gency shel­ters it would nor­mally use were evac­u­ated as Irma ap­proached. Power at the fa­cil­ity went out, and it stayed out, even as homes and busi­nesses around it saw their lights come back on.

As the in­door tem­per­a­ture climbed to the mid-80s Tues­day morn­ing, hu­mid­ity made the hard-sur­faced floors slick with con­den­sa­tion. Pa­tients gath­ered in a small day room to catch a slight breeze from screened win­dows. A hand­ful of small fans pow­ered by a bor­rowed gen­er­a­tor were all that kept the sit­u­a­tion from de­volv­ing into a med­i­cal emer­gency, said Dan Nel­son, Cape Coral Shores’ chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer.

“Peo­ple here are frag­ile,” Nel­son said, adding that air con­di­tion­ing in such fa­cil­i­ties is a med­i­cal ne­ces­sity. “This is not just about com­fort; it’s about safety. We have mag­net door locks that don’t work, fire sup­pres­sion equip­ment whose bat­ter­ies have run out, as­sisted bed that don’t work. And the tem­per­a­tures to­day and to­mor­row are headed back to the mid90s.”

A state emer­gency of­fi­cial said Tues­day af­ter­noon that he had found a large gen­er­a­tor and 50 gal­lons of gas for the fa­cil­ity, but there was no need: The power came back on.

While the Sun­shine State was the hard­est-hit by the out­ages, they ex­tended to the other states Irma raked as it headed north. Hun­dreds of thou­sands lost power in the Caroli­nas, Alabama and Ge­or­gia, where, at one point, 800,000 were ex­pe­ri­enc­ing out­ages on Tues­day, though that num­ber de­clined dur­ing the day.

The de­te­ri­o­rat­ing storm once known as Hur­ri­cane Irma — clas­si­fied Tues­day as a post-trop­i­cal cy­clone — grazed on­ward through the Mis­sis­sippi Val­ley, los­ing es­sen­tially all of its prior strength but still drench­ing ar­eas with rain­fall.

Across the South­east, even as peo­ple ac­knowl­edged that they had dodged the worst pos­si­ble hit from Irma, they were still left to con­tend with de­stroyed homes, flooded cities, swollen rivers, can­celed flights and de­bris in the streets.

The city of Jack­sonville, Fla., re­mained flooded af­ter the St. Johns River over­flowed so se­verely the day be­fore that it forced res­i­dents from their homes. In Charleston, S.C., city of­fi­cials said the in­tense flood­ing Mon­day closed more than 111 roads, most of which had re­opened Tues­day.

Author­i­ties said they were in- ves­ti­gat­ing sev­eral fa­tal­i­ties that came since the storm made land­fall, though it was not clear how many were di­rectly due to the storm.

Among them were a 51-yearold man in Win­ter Park, Fla., out­side Orlando, who po­lice said was ap­par­ently elec­tro­cuted by a downed power line in a road­way. In Ge­or­gia, the Forsyth County Sher­iff ’s Of­fice said a 67-year-old woman was killed when a tree fell on her car; the mayor of Sandy Springs said a 55-year-old man was killed when a tree fell on the bed­room where he was sleep­ing. In other cases, car crashes claimed lives as the storm loomed.

In Key West, it re­mained un­clear when power, cell­phone ser­vice or sup­plies would be avail­able again.

“What you have on hand is ra­tioned to make sure you can get through,” said Todd Pa­len­char, 48, not­ing that his sup­plies of food and wa­ter are de­signed to last a week. “You don’t know how long it’s go­ing to be.”

Pa­len­char said he is used to camp­ing and rough­ing it, but his main con­cern now is his prop­erty.

“I’ve al­ready posted signs where I’m at, ‘Loot­ers will be shot, no ques­tions asked,’ ” he said as he pulled up his shirt to re­veal a .380-cal­iber pis­tol.

As Irma tore through the Caribbean and ap­proached the Keys last week, author­i­ties had or­dered mil­lions in Florida to evac­u­ate and, in some cases, or­dered them to hit the road again as the storm’s path wob­bled. On Tues­lifts day, of­fi­cials slowly be­gan let­ting those peo­ple re­turn home.

In Mon­roe County, which in­cludes the Florida Keys, and other places that let res­i­dents back, of­fi­cials warned that many ar­eas were still with­out power, that cell­phone re­cep­tion is ques­tion­able and that most gas sta­tions re­mained shut.

Mi­ami-Dade Mayor Car­los A. Giménez said about half of the county’s traf­fic sig­nals were out. Broward County Mayor Bar­bara Sharief said the num­ber was closer to 45 per­cent of traf­fic sig­nals there. Across the state, the ex­pla­na­tions for the out­ages were vis­i­ble along­side the road.

“It’s a lot of trees and power lines and snapped poles,” said Kate Al­bers, a spokes­woman for Col­lier County, which stretches across south­west­ern Florida and in­cludes Marco Is­land, where Irma made its sec­ond land­fall.

“I can tell you from driv­ing around you see lines down all over the place,” Al­bers said. “You see trees thrown through power lines, and you’ll see an oc­ca­sional pole.”

The high num­ber of out­ages across Florida was due largely to the storm’s mas­sive size, said Ted Kury, di­rec­tor of en­ergy stud­ies for the Pub­lic Util­ity Re­search Cen­ter at the Univer­sity of Florida.

“For a sig­nif­i­cant pe­riod of time, the en­tire state was un­der a hur­ri­cane warn­ing,” Kury said. “Nor­mally, it comes through, some­times it comes through fast, and some­times it comes through slowly. But this one hit pretty much ev­ery­body.”

Kury was among those who did not lose power but did lose In­ter­net, ca­ble and cell­phone ser­vice, so he and his wife had to walk to the next de­vel­op­ment be­fore his wife got enough sig­nal to text their old­est son and her par­ents.

Storms that rip down power lines are fre­quently fol­lowed by ques­tions about why more lines are not buried un­der­ground, away from pun­ish­ing winds.

Cost is one fac­tor. A 2012 re­port for the Edi­son Elec­tric Institute, a trade as­so­ci­a­tion rep­re­sent­ing in­vestor-owned elec­tri­cal util­i­ties, found that it can be five to 10 times more ex­pen­sive to put lines un­der­ground — oth­er­wise known as “un­der­ground­ing” — than to hang them over­head.

The util­i­ties also weigh how much cost they can pass on to their cus­tomers and the aes­thet­ics of over­head wires, Kury said, not­ing that there is no uni­form pol­icy for power com­pa­nies be­cause di­verse re­gions have dif­fer­ent needs.

“It’s kind of a mis­state­ment when folks say un­der­ground­ing power lines pro­tects them from dam­age,” Kury said. “What it re­ally does is in­su­lates them from dam­age from wind events and fly­ing de­bris. But it makes them more sus­cep­ti­ble to things like flood­ing and things like storm surge.”

He added: “If you’re in an area where your big­gest risk to the in­fra­struc­ture is storm surge and flood­ing, put­ting the lines un­der­ground can ac­tu­ally make them more sus­cep­ti­ble to dam­age and not less.”

Florida util­ity com­pa­nies em­barked upon a mas­sive re­sponse ef­fort to get the lights back on. Gould said the com­pany had dis­patched 20,000 work­ers to work day and night restor­ing power, first to crit­i­cal care in­fra­struc­ture — such as hos­pi­tals and 911 sys­tems — and then to feed­ers that send juice to the most cus­tomers. Fi­nally, they get to in­di­vid­ual neigh­bor­hoods.

In St. Peters­burg, where gaspow­ered gen­er­a­tors had growled through the night, res­i­dents lit their way with bat­tery-pow­ered lanterns, flash­lights and tea lights.

“We’ve run out of power be­fore,” said Jeanne Isacco, 71, reach­ing for her walker to stand and punc­tu­ate her point. “Why do you think we live here? Ex­cuse me! We know it’s hot.”

MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Ely Chavez clears de­bris from her home in the Tav­ernier area of the Florida Keys af­ter Hur­ri­cane Irma on Tues­day. Her fam­ily was see­ing their home for the first time since the storm. “Didn’t ex­pect it to be this bad,” Chavez’s hus­band, Kevin, said about the house.

MICHAEL S. WIL­LIAMSON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Louis, an Army vet­eran who fought in World War II, is among those liv­ing at Cape Coral Shores, an as­sisted-care fa­cil­ity for pa­tients with de­men­tia and mem­ory im­pair­ment. The fa­cil­ity was with­out power for some time af­ter Irma, caus­ing po­ten­tially haz­ardous con­di­tions.

MICHAEL S. WIL­LIAMSON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Russell is com­forted by his guardian, Liz Pendy, at Cape Coral Shores. Fans helped keep res­i­dents cool while the power was out.

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