Officials in places hard hit by Hurricane Irma have been asking for patience as electric utilities and others work to repair the damage inflicted by high winds and high waters. That commodity is said to be wearing thin in some areas, though, as weary people in Florida, Georgia and other regions of the Southeast grapple with what has happened to their homes and communities.
With a huge mutual aid force estimated at nearly 60,000 working to clear fallen trees and get electric power flowing again, headway was reported in Florida and elsewhere, although it looks as though some people in hard-to-reach areas — including electricity customers in parts of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico — may have a long wait.
In Florida, there were 3.5 million electricity customers in the dark as of Wednesday morning, Sept. 13, according to the Department of Energy — down from more than 6 million two days earlier. DOE said that 514,000 customers were without power in Georgia as of Wednesday morning, while there were 60,000 in the dark in South Carolina and 28,000 in North Carolina.
At least 56 people have died as a result of the storm, including 13 in Florida, the Associated Press reported. Six of those were residents of a nursing home whose air conditioning stopped working, The New York Times reported Sept. 13.
President Trump is scheduled to visit Florida on Thursday, Sept. 14.
During a conference call the morning of Sept. 13 with public power officials, mutual aid coordinators said there were plans to send dozens more utility crews to JEA, the city-owned and operated utility in Jacksonville, Florida, and to cities in Polk County. These crews are being offered through the public power mutual aid network.
Investor-owned utilities and rural electric cooperatives have their own mutual aid networks. Together, all three sectors of the industry have gathered an army that was estimated at roughly 60,000 on Tuesday.
There is still plenty of work for them to do.
State officials said that as of Tuesday, more than 90,000 Floridians remained in emergency shelters.
Santa Fe River threatens to flood major highway
Meanwhile, a new problem had emerged that threatened to throw a wrench in mutual aid workers’ path. Amy Zubaly, executive director of the Florida Municipal Electric Association, said Wednesday morning that the Santa Fe River north of the public power town of Gainesville was reaching unprecedented levels that threatened to flood Interstate 75, a road being used by utility crews trying to get to areas in need of help.
The Miami Herald reported that the river was recorded at 56.39 feet on Wednesday. The water was still rising and was expected to continue to do so through the weekend, “as water levels from upstream move southward down the river,” the newspaper said.
Should I-75 close, mutual aid crews being coordinated through FMEA should get in touch “and we’ll figure out a different route,” Zubaly told the mutual aid leaders during the Sept. 13 conference call.
Zubaly said that as of Wednesday morning, FMEA did not need any more lineworker crews to come to Florida from out of state, though she said that more tree crews might still be needed from nearby areas of the Southeast.
“Everybody is in full swing restoration,” Zubaly said. “We’re making a lot of progress.”
There had been 800,000 public power customers out of power, and “we’ve restored 500,000,” she said in another phone call later that day with Department of Energy officials. She noted that a few public power utilities depend on transmission lines operated by other utilities, and were waiting for those transmission lines to come back into service.
Conditions ‘primitive’ in Key West
Zubaly said she spoke on Sept. 12 with Lynne Tejeda, general manager and CEO of Keys Energy Services in Key West.
“Conditions are really primitive” on the island, she said: “No water, no sewer, and they need a lot of supplies.”
FMEA reached out to Florida Power and Light, the investor-owned utility in Florida that serves much of the state, and FPL had offered to help transport utility poles to Key West, she said.
Governor ‘shocked’ at Jacksonville flooding
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Jacksonville residents and officials were “shocked” at the damage that Irma inflicted on Florida’s largest city, which is a public power community.
“So many areas that you would never have thought have flooded, have flooded,” Scott said.
According to Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, at least 356 people have had to be rescued from floodwaters this week.
The storm knocked out power to more than a quarter million JEA customers, reported the Florida Times-Union. Many homes flooded as the St. Johns River rose to levels never seen before, and other homes that stayed dry were wrecked by falling trees.
Although Irma “was transitioning from a weak Category 2 hurricane into a tropical storm as its outer bands moved through Northeast Florida, “a confluence of other weather patterns — including a weekend nor’easter” — caused a storm surge that would be expected from a much stronger Category 3 hurricane, the newspaper reported Sept. 12.
On Tuesday, more than 125,000 JEA customers were still in the dark, and four city shelters remained open, the Times-Union said. City offices were to re-open on Wednesday, but Duval County public schools were still closed.
Island territories were first to be struck
Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were the first public power territories to get hit, suffering major damage and widespread outages when Irma struck on Sept. 6.
“Working with our federal partners here in D.C., the American Public Power Association is attempting to coordinate transport and resources to help with restoration efforts in the Caribbean and in the Southeastern U.S.,” said the association’s president and CEO, Sue Kelly, and Mike Hyland, the trade group’s senior vice president of engineering, in a special message to public power utilities on Sept. 12.
Kelly and Hyland noted that, in Florida, the Florida Municipal Electric Association has been running point on state mutual aid efforts. “The national response has been impressive, with hundreds of crews mobilizing from dozens of states, but Florida utilities are still facing an uphill climb to recover — and in some cases rebuild — in the wake of this historic storm,” they said.
After Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico, 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. By Wednesday morning, Sept. 13, that number had dropped to 122,000, or about 8 percent of the utility’s customers.
In the Virgin Islands, which were hit very, very hard 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. The island of St. Croix, which was not hit as hard as St. John or St. Thomas, expects to have all electric service restored before the end of this month.
A lineman who was in the Virgin Islands to help restore electric service there died on Sept. 12, the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority said. Restoration efforts were being suspended for the next day, Sept. 13, out of respect for the lineworker and his family, said the utility.
Trucks, crews converge from all over US
People at public power utilities from all over the country have been sending linemen, tree crews and trucks to help their sister utilities in Florida. Among them are public power crews from Alabama, Arkansas, the Carolinas, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, and New England.
On Sept. 12, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Neil Chatterjee and North American Electric Reliability Corporation President and CEO Gerry Cauley issued a joint statement on electricity industry assistance related to Hurricane Irma recovery.
“We appreciate and encourage the ongoing inter-utility cooperation among utilities, both public and private, in response to Hurricane Irma, which devastated Florida and Georgia, neighboring states, Puerto Rico and U.S. territories in the Caribbean,” Chatterjee and Cauley said, noting that the storm comes on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, “which already put the electricity industry to the test.”
Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida on Sunday morning, Sept. 10, as a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 130 miles per hour. By Monday, Sept. 11 it was clear that, true to the predictions, this large, powerful and capricious storm already had caused widespread destruction in every area of the state.