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Floridians deal with Irma's aftermath

By MARK BERMAN, AND KATIE ZEZIMA
The Washington Post

September 13. 2017 12:14AM
Local residents look at a collapsed coastal house after Hurricane Irma passed the area in Vilano Beach, Fla., on Tuesday. (REUTERS/Chris Wattie)

MIAMI — Millions of Floridians grappled with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma on Tuesday, confronting a daunting, uncomfortable reality.

About half of the nation’s third-most populous state still lacked power in the storm’s wake, and for some of them, the lights may 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 and 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 state, that discomfort played out in homes that were silent without the usual thrum of perpetual air-conditioning. It meant refrigerators unable to cool milk and freezers unable to chill chicken. Even for those who had power, some were also 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.

Utility companies made progress, restoring power to some people. At its peak, the Department of Homeland Security said about 15 million Floridians — an astonishing three out of four residents — lacked power.

Throughout the day Tuesday, state officials gradually lowered the number of customers without power, dropping it to 5.2 million from 6.5 million a day earlier. Since each power company account can represent more than one person, the sheer number of people without electricity was daunting: Going by the Homeland Security estimates, at one point Irma had knocked out power to one out of every 22 Americans.

Gould said that for FPL, which powers about half of the state, customers on Florida’s east coast should have power back by the end of the weekend. People in western Florida, closer to where Irma made landfall on Sunday, should have it back by Sept. 22, nearly two weeks after that happened. But this does not include places with severe flooding or tornado damage, he said, and those areas could face a longer wait before the lights returned.

The deteriorating storm once known as Hurricane Irma grazed through the Mississippi Valley on Tuesday, losing essentially all of its prior strength but still drenching some areas with rainfall. In its wake, people across the American southeast continued to recover,

The remnants of once fearsome Hurricane Irma rolled through the Southeast on Tuesday, still carrying flood risks and leaving a staggering recovery effort in its wake that includes simply trying to turn the lights back on across huge swaths of Florida.

The unprecedented outages — knocking out power to more than half of Florida’s homes and businesses — also unleashed a cascade effect across the region. Millions of people who fled Irma may struggle to return home for weeks as crews try to deal with downed lines, debris and a storm-swamped electrical grid. Electrical power is needed, too, to keep water and sanitation systems operating.

For those with a generator, fuel supplies depend on the success of a logistical network trying to keep gas flowing to all points of battered and sweltering Florida.

“Power pretty much drives everything,” Christopher Krebs, assistant secretary for Infrastructure Protection at the Department of Homeland Security, said at a news briefing Tuesday.

Krebs said Tuesday morning that as many as 15 million people in Florida lacked power, an astonishing figure that represented three-quarters of the state’s entire population.

This number has evolved, though, as crews are able to navigate debris and try to restore power. State emergency officials said that some 5.4 million power company customers lacked power midday Tuesday, representing nearly 52 percent of all customers statewide — a figure that has been dropping since Monday.

Since each account can represent more than one person, the overall figures remained at remarkable levels. Perhaps most alarming to those in Florida who awoke without air conditioning or working refrigerators is the reality that in some cases, power may not return for days or weeks.

“This is going to take some time to restore, and in some circumstances, it will be a situation about rebuilding,” Krebs said.

FPL, which powers half of the state, said Tuesday that the east coast of the state should have power back by the end of the weekend, while on the west coast this process would take until Sept. 22 — nearly two full weeks after Irma began battering the state.

But there are exceptions in areas that saw severe flooding or tornado damage, FPL officials said.

Krebs’s figure offered Tuesday was was higher than those offered a day earlier by utility companies supplying power to a large number of Floridians.

Eric Silagy, president and chief executive of FPL, had said Monday as many as 9 million people were affected by his company’s outages alone. Shawna Berger, a spokeswoman for Duke Energy, said 1.2 million of its 1.8 million customers were without power Monday in the state.

Berger said if you multiply that number by 2.5 — per the latest census data, she said — it shows that 3 million people were affected at the peak blackouts.

“We’ve never had that many outages,” Silagy said. “I don’t think any utility in the country has.”

Gov. Rick Scott, R, warned the many residents still stuck in the dark that “it’s going to take us a long time to get the power back up.”

Florida was not alone. Blackouts hit wide areas in Georgia and South Carolina — with more blows possible as the remains of Irma continue moving north.

Georgia power officials said Tuesday that about 800,000 people in the state lacked power.


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