Built on Air Conditioning, Florida Is in a Race to Restore Power

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  • Hurricane Irma wasn’t a monster, but left half state powerless
  • Some likely to wait weeks before their electricity returns

U.S. Dodges Worst Case Hurricane Irma Scenario

David Guerra stood in his yard in southeast Miami, sweating. He’d suffered through the terror of 100 mph-plus winds flung off by Irma and was now descending into the special hell of a megastorm’s aftermath.

A big tree next door had toppled onto a power line at 4:10 a.m. Saturday. Sparks flew, a transformer exploded, the lights went out. Guerra and his wife and son faced the misery of going days if not weeks without a working stove or refrigerator or, most importantly, air conditioning.

“Before AC, nobody lived in Florida -- and for good reason,” Guerra, 55, said Monday when the temperature was sitting at 88 degrees. “It’s easy to forget that this is really a jungle we live in. We’re going to go back to the jungle.”

The state may have been spared the most horrible loss of life and destruction of property so many had predicted, but it’s hard to overstate the scale of devastation Irma’s fury brought to the power grid and those who depend on it. All told, 5.5 million homes and businesses didn’t have service as of 12:02 p.m. New York time, down from 6.4 million Monday.

The challenge: turning the power back on in a place whose explosive growth was built on air-conditioning.

“It’s a magnitude we just haven’t seen before,” Eric Silagy, CEO of NextEra Energy Inc.’s Florida Power & Light, the state’s biggest utility, told reporters Monday. “This is the largest restoration in the company’s history.”

‘Uncomfortable Time’

Because the transmission network held up better than expected, the utility moved up its forecast for restoring service. Eastern Florida should have power back by Sept. 17, FP&L spokesman Rob Gould told reporters Tuesday, while more heavily damaged regions along the west coast will have to wait until Sept. 22. On Monday, FP&L said it could take weeks to restore power.

“This is going to be a very uncomfortable time,” Gould said. “All of us realize how tough it is.”

There’s a lot of human misery behind the numbers, with hospitals, nursing homes, schools and more out of juice. Guerra, a software technician, works from home -- not a possibility at the moment.

It’s the heat, though, that compounds the other problems. Guerra has thrown open his windows and doors, and all that seems to do is let more mosquitoes in. Temperatures are forecast to remain in the high 80s in Miami over the next five days.

“Look how much I smell, my dog smells, everyone smells,” he said. “All you do is think of how you can escape. But there is no escape.”

A/C Transformation

The invention of air-conditioning in many ways created modern Florida, according to a history published by the University of South Florida. At the end of World War II, it fueled a population boom. By the 1960s, the efficient cooling of offices and homes had transformed most everything. The machine that could tackle heat and humidity shifted Florida’s economy from rural to urban. The state’s tourism industry exploded.

Power -- and air conditioning -- is such a big deal that Florida Governor Rick Scott touted preparations to restore service during multiple briefings since Irma began to threaten the state a week ago. “We have to get everybody with their electricity back,” Scott said Monday afternoon. “Unfortunately everyone has to be patient because it will take a long time. This was a serious storm.”

Many power lines and transformers are above ground, attached to poles. Irma’s winds turned trunks and limbs into effective line cutters, causing at least 5 million outages and damage to all 27,000 square miles of its service territory, FP&L said. 

In Coral Gables, a city within greater Miami that’s one of the richest in the U.S., the homes along the Biltmore Hotel’s golf course lost power just like everywhere else. JoAnn Seipp stood in front of her renovated mid-century house along the course, resigned to living without cold air or hot showers. 

Helicopters and Drones

“The important thing is that no one got hurt,” she said, watching as her son took a chain saw to a palm tree that had crashed down, clipping her roof. “You can get used to living without AC. You just learn to make do.”

For the last few days, FP&L has amassed a force of about 20,000 workers at about 30 camps throughout the state. It has stockpiled thousands of utility poles, transformers and miles of power lines. With gear loaded onto more than 8,000 bucket trucks, crews have been spreading throughout the state to assess damage and make repairs. At Lantana Airport, which President Donald Trump flies into when he visits his Mar-a-Lago resort, several dozen electric repair trucks queued up and men rested before going back out.

“We are ready to deploy what’s effectively an army,” said NextEra’s Silagy. “Each site is effectively a mini-city.”

On Monday, the utility put helicopters and drones into the air to spot damage on high-voltage power lines that function like the arteries of its network, delivering electricity from plants to neighborhoods. Workers will then turn to substations, which reduce voltage so power can be safely delivered to homes and businesses.

One of the lessons learned from Superstorm Sandy was the need to install flood monitors at substations to prevent them from exploding when they are flooded, Silagy said. Once the water has receded, the equipment can be turned back on without damage, he said.

Crews will first focus on essential services such as hospitals, police, fire stations and shelters. Then come banks and gasoline stations. Last on the list are lines to individual streets and homes.

That’s why people like Mark Cleoghorn, a chief lineman, get so much grief by the time they show up at some people’s doors. On Monday, he was with a crew rebuilding one of six destroyed feeder lines, which bring power from a substation to surrounding neighborhoods, on Jog Road in West Palm Beach. The team had been working on the road’s power system since the morning.

In the days after a storm, the repair crews can be the most popular guys in town. As the days or weeks mount, the adulation fades. "For the first few days they love us," he said. "They then start to hate us."

— With assistance by Jim Polson, and Margaret Newkirk

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