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Irma causes one of the largest disaster power outages in the nation

Power trucks and workers head out  from Derby Lane in St. Petersburg on Sept. 12, 2017, into Pinellas County to restore power after Hurricane Irma. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Power trucks and workers head out from Derby Lane in St. Petersburg on Sept. 12, 2017, into Pinellas County to restore power after Hurricane Irma. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Scrambling utility workers restored power for more than 2 million Florida customers on Tuesday, but that left nearly 5 million households still in the dark after Hurricane Irma, including more than 834,000 in Tampa Bay.

And for some of them, relief from the record-setting statewide outage may not come until this weekend.

As of 6 p.m., about half of the Sunshine State was waiting for the lights to go back on. That's down from Monday night when 62 percent of the state's 10.5 million households were without power.

Irma triggered one of the nation's largest natural disaster-related power outages ever measured. For comparison, Hurricane Andrew left 1.4 million people without power in South Florida in 1992, and it took months to be restored. Hurricane Wilma caused 3.4 million outages for Florida Power & Light customers in South Florida in 2005. Hurricane Sandy cut power to 8.2 million people across 17 states.

"This is the biggest, worst storm we've ever had," said Dave Lambert, spokesman with Withlacoochee River Electric, which supplies power to parts of Hernando, Pasco, Polk and Sumter counties.

Lambert said Monday morning the electric company had 185,000 customers out of an approximate 225,000 total without power. That figure had fallen to 74,000 without power as of midday Tuesday.

"It is a myth that this was not a bad storm. That's not true," he said. "This was a massive storm in its scope and size, and we're fortunate in this area that these outages are the worst of it."

Duke Energy officials said Tuesday afternoon that 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 for their power to come back on.

Almost all TECO households without power should get it back by Sunday, Tampa Electric's president said Tuesday afternoon. Gordon Gillette 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.

COMPLETE COVERAGE:Find all our coverage about Hurricane Irma here

For some, the outage had already dragged into its fourth day. All it took was some of Irma's early winds on Friday afternoon for Julia Brazier and her entire block in St. Petersburg's Historic Old Northeast to lose power.

When the lights zapped out at 4:03 p.m., Brazier, 62, thought certainly they'd come back on before the worst of Irma hit. She was wrong.

She's spent four nights now without power, watching as nearby Sunken Gardens and Rally's powered back on.

"Each morning I wake up, I'm hoping maybe now it's back on, but no," Brazier said. "I haven't been able to get any information from Duke Energy, and I'm just very frustrated and confused."

Getting power back on line for such a large number of customers simply takes time, Duke Energy spokesman Neil Nissan said. The company experienced significant damage to its transmission system.

About 12,000 utility technicians, some coming from as far away as Canada and the West Coast, are working in Florida to try to get power restored as soon as possible. About 700 of those Duke Energy employees are staying at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. TradeWinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach housed another 700.

About 1,500 workers from the Midwest were deployed to Georgia where they waited for Irma to pass before making their way to Florida to start restoration as quickly as possible, Nissan said.

There's not just one cause to blame for the widespread outages. Instead, it's a combination of destruction: trees falling on power lines, poles tipping or sustaining other damage, debris flying into the system. Many electrical substations that link transmission lines with local distribution lines were also wrecked by the storm.

"It's all of these things together," Nissan said. "The combination of strong winds, debris that got blown into power lines and an enormous amount of flooding that needs to subside.

"We have the equipment, we have the workers, but sometimes it just takes a lot of time."

Many Texas residents are still without power weeks after Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston and coastal areas of the state, which shows just how long it can take to get back up and running. Utilities officials say it could take more than a week to get power in all households around Tampa Bay.

In the bay area, 319,223 Duke Energy customers in Pinellas and more than 191,000 TECO customers in Hillsborough remained without power around 6 p.m. Tuesday. In Pasco County, 118,223 customers were still experiencing outages. In Hernando: 36,082 customers.

Pinellas County was faring the worst in the region with 61 percent of households without power late Tuesday. More than 300 traffic lights were still down on area roads during the day. The most severe damage in Tampa Electric's coverage area happened in Polk County, spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs said, where 35,962 customers were still without power.

Katie Gertz, 23, and her family lost power in Carrollwood late Sunday night and moved over to her grandfather's house for some relief from the heat. Counting her parents, sister and other family, seven of them are staying there as they wait for power to come back on. The hardest part of being without power? Lack of AC and being able to cook the right food for her younger sister who has some developmental disabilities.

"She's got a routine and a lot of her routine involves access to the Internet," Gertz said. "It's a little frustrating for her not to understand why the power is out."

Ana Gibbs, a Duke Energy spokeswoman, said they "have technicians in multiple bucket trucks working in specific areas and putting up new poles, fixing transmission lines and restringing power lines. It's a lot of work and we appreciate everyone's patience."

Florida Power & Light, which provides electricity to metro areas in South Florida and elsewhere in the state, reported 2.8 million without power Tuesday, down from the 3.6 million outages Monday.

Utility companies prioritize public safety when restoring power. That means hospitals, 911 call centers, law enforcement and water treatment plants are first in line. St. Petersburg paramedics and first responders were operating out of the Hotel Indigo as of Tuesday morning because their downtown station was still without power.

"There are two different teams out today. There are damage assessors who are identifying issues and where. Then there are teams who are doing repairs. Some are one-person crews handling smaller scale issues like fuses and breakers. Multiple-person teams are putting up poles and transformers. Downed power lines have separate crews because those are the most urgent," Jacobs from TECO said.

When it comes to residences, utility companies make repairs in areas that will have the greatest impact first. Duke Energy also takes into account the amount of time an area has been without power, a spokeswoman said.

"We've had significant outages with this hurricane. It's knocked out 60 percent of our customers," Jacobs said. "There is no such thing as making a power system hurricane proof. Previous storms have taught us many things and we've improved the hardiness of our grid over time. But there's nothing we can do to make an electrical system completely hurricane proof."

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin. Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

I don't have power. How long before it's restored?

You're not alone. Florida utilities are reporting more than 6 million customers out of the state's total of 10 million power users are without power. While they're working hard to restore power, reaching that many customers may take days or even weeks.

This happens during every hurricane. Why can't the utilities do something to prevent it?

The only way to make sure trees don't knock down power lines during a hurricane is to bury them, which is expensive.

Why aren't more power lines underground? Aren't they safer?

Individual customers can elect to have power lines to their houses run underground, but it's significantly more costly to do so because of the labor required. More developers are choosing to put power lines underground when possible, but even those are still not "hurricane proof." Underground lines are susceptible to water damage from flooding. They can be pulled up when a tree topples over, too. Some areas, like communities around the coast, are unable to have bury power lines.

Do my solar panels work when the electricity is off?

It depends. If you have a solar battery system as well as a solar PV system, then yes, your power will continue to work. But if your system is tied in with the power grid — as most are — then for safety reasons, your solar power system will automatically shut off when the electricity goes out.

How do I charge my cell phone when I don't have power?

If you still have gas, the easiest way is to charge it in your car. External batteries are also a great option. Many neighborhoods that have power have also set up phone-charging stations for those who are less fortunate.

What do I do with food in my fridge once the power is out?

By this point, most things have gone bad. Rather than leave them in there to stink up your fridge, take the time to purge everything. Trash service resumed in some areas Tuesday, and is expected to be back on a regular schedule in other places soon after. Check your county's web site for locations.

Irma causes one of the largest disaster power outages in the nation 09/13/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 13, 2017 5:49am]
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