Disaster Response

After Irma, 6 million lack power in Florida — and the trucks are on their way

The extent of the damage in Florida still is being assessed, after Hurricane Irma made landfall on Sunday morning, Sept. 10, as a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 130 miles per hour. But it is already clear that, true to the predictions, this large, powerful — and it seemed, capricious — storm had caused widespread destruction on Florida’s west coast, its center, and its east coast as well.

This hurricane, already historic, appeared likely to result in a historic recovery effort. Meanwhile, people in Georgia braced as Irma, now a tropical storm, began knocking out power there on Monday.

Irma passed over the Florida Keys, including public power town of Key West, then over Fort Myers, then veered to the east for a direct hit to Lakeland and Orlando, said Amy Zubaly, executive director of the Florida Municipal Electric Association, in a conference call with American Public Power Association officials the morning of Sept. 11.

“We knew it was going to be a devastating storm, and it has been,” she said. “It’s been an absolute disaster.” Most of the public power utilities that are members of FMEA “are looking at 10-plus days” to get electric power restored, she said.

Officials said that in parts of Florida, as in parts of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, bringing the power back would require actually rebuilding the electric system.

Roughly 50,000 lineworkers headed to Florida

Early this week, a veritable army lineworkers, estimated at 50,000 strong, was converging on Florida. Hundreds and perhaps even thousands had already arrived at staging areas in Florida by the time Irma made landfall on Sunday morning.

Others were on their way, from distant locations that included Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. A lineworker with the Lincoln Electric System in Lincoln, Neb., sent his own drone up to capture a video as 17 trucks and 321 linemen hit the road, bound for Florida, on the morning of Sept. 9.

In places such as Georgia and the Carolinas, more utility crews were making tentative plans to help Florida, but were first waiting to see how their own regions fared with Tropical Storm Irma.

Offers of help came in from as far away as Canada and the West Coast.

On Sept. 7, the FMEA’s Zubaly said that mutual aid crews were either “en route or preparing to be en route” from Texas, Nebraska Oklahoma, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and New England.

River sets record in Jacksonville; gasoline shortages

CNN and NBC were reporting on Monday that a record storm surge was occurring in the public power city of Jacksonville, Fla., on Florida’s east coast. The St Johns River, which runs right through downtown Jacksonville, was at record levels. NBC reported that the local sheriff's office asked people to put white flags outside their homes to signal for help.

With gasoline already depleted in many places in Florida because of the millions of people who had evacuated, gas supplies were a worry for those coordinating mutual aid efforts. Electric utility industry officials were working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense to make sure that utility convoys would be able to find gasoline.

The FMEA’s Zubaly said on Monday that the city-owned utility in Key West had reported widespread damage to its system, and that in Kissimmee and Orlando, approximately 75 percent of customers were in the dark. Some cities had no water, and in some cases sewer systems had failed, she said.

In Tallahassee, where FMEA has its headquarters, the winds were still too high for lineworkers to start repair work, but were expected to die down enough by 4 p.m. Monday afternoon to allow the crews to start working.

“We need help in the whole state,” Zubaly told public power mutual aid officials.

Georgia, Alabama next

Meanwhile, Georgia and its capital city braced for trouble as Tropical Storm Irma left Florida and headed their way.

The afternoon of Sept. 11, Irma, a weakened Irma was headed toward Atlanta. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the first bands of Tropical Storm Irma had knocked out power to more than 660,000 electricity customers that morning, and Metro Atlanta was under its first-ever tropical storm warning.

Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency in all 159 counties in the state — the first time a Georgia governor has done this, according to the newspaper. Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines canceled flights into and out of Atlanta.

“Irma continues to slowly weaken while moving into southern Georgia,” said a 2 p.m. bulletin from the National Hurricane Center on Monday. Maximum sustained winds had decreased to near 60 mph, with higher gusts.

Irma was moving toward the north-northwest at near 17 mph, a motion that was expected to continue through Tuesday.

The storm was expected to move into eastern Alabama Tuesday morning. “Eastern Alabama, long forecast as the hardest hit area, braced for gusts blowing up to 50 mph,” the Montgomery Advertiser reported Monday.

Though it is forecast to become a tropical depression on Tuesday, “Irma remains a large tropical cyclone,” the hurricane center said in its 2 p.m. update on Sept. 11. “Tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 415 miles from the center.”

One of the remarkable things about Irma has been its sheer size. Radar and satellite images of the hurricane showed, no matter where Irma’s eye was at any given time as it traveled up through Florida, the swirling storm was wider than the state.

Mutual aid being coordinated for Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico

After Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 6, about 70 percent of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s customers — more than 1 million — were reported out of power. As of the early afternoon on Sept. 9, that had diminished to 596,542, PREPA reported on Twitter.

In the Virgin Islands, which were very hard hit by the hurricane, electric service had been restored to the airport and hospital on St. Thomas as of Sept. 9, but all other customers on St. Thomas and St. John remained without power.

A state of emergency has been declared in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and Alabama.
On Sunday, President Trump approved a disaster declaration for Florida that authorizes the use of federal funds for the counties of Charlotte, Collier, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Pinellas and Sarasota.

"Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster," the Federal Emergency Management Agency said in a news release.

Irma follows quickly on the heels of another hurricane that hit the United States as a Category 4 storm: Hurricane Harvey, which brought disastrous flooding to Houston.

The United States has been hit by more than one Category 4 hurricane in the same season only once before, the Washington Post’s weather editor, Jason Samenow, reported Sept. 8. That was in 1915, when two Cat 4 hurricanes hit Texas and Louisiana six weeks apart, he said.

Hurricane Jose predicted to do a loop

Hurricane Jose, which could be seen trailing Hurricane Irma in video footage taken from space a few days ago, had maximum sustained winds of 105 mph as of Monday morning, making it a Category 2 hurricane. The National Hurricane Center is predicting that Jose will do a circular dance in the Atlantic over the next few days. By next Saturday, the prediction cone shows Jose within possible striking distance of Florida or some other East Coast destination.

The Department of Energy is issuing regular situation reports on Irma.