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Power out to a vast majority of Southwest Florida; providers have no timeline for repairs

Power company crew trucks drive on a flooded street on their way to help communities impacted by Hurricane Ian, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Fort Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
Florida Power & Light
Teams of drones are helping Florida Power & Light assess damage from Hurricane Ian that left more than 2 million of its customers in the dark across the Sunshine State.

A little more than a day after Hurricane Ian made landfall, Florida Power & Light knew how many of its 2 million customers are without power, and where they are, but company officials can’t tell most of those whose power was still out more than 24 hours later when to expect the lights to turn back on.

“Daylight revealed Hurricane Ian’s utter destruction, and our hearts go out to our fellow Floridians whose lives have been upended,” said Eric Silagy, FPL’s chairman and chief executive officer. “We know the vital role electricity plays. Rest assured, we will not stop until we can get the lights back on.”

Hurricane Ian came ashore near Fort Myers as a Category 4 storm packing sustained winds of 150 mph on a trajectory that would prove devastating for many reasons: the strength of its winds, its slow forward speed, and its meandering path that meant the huge storm touched nearly every place in peninsular Florida.

Power had been restored to much of Southeast Florida, which was hit by Ian’s feeder bands for 36 hours, which is where many of the 750,000 customers who had their service turned on in the first 24 hours lived.

In Lee County, FPL has 288,630 customers and 241,910 remained without power early Friday morning, according to FPL data. In Collier County, that same data showed 228,540 and 172,010, respectively. In Charlotte County, it was 126,690 and 112,040.

Don’t report outages

The nonprofit Lee County Electric Cooperative has about 200,000 customers in Lee County and parts of Collier, Hendry, Charlotte, and Broward counties. The agency reported more than 90 percent of its customers without power early Friday.

The LCEC tells customers to not call when their power goes out because “utilities know the power is out and are working as quickly, safely, and smartly to restore power.”

The agency was doing damage assessments Thursday and will continue today.

“More than 500 crews and additional LCEC field employees began evaluating the entire electric grid to determine the quickest strategy to energize main circuits this morning,” Karen Ryan, LCEC's director of public relations, wrote. “Depending on their ability to navigate flooded areas, downed bridges, debris, and vegetation, this could take more than one day."

Ryan said Friday morning that crews were able to restore power to about 12,600 residents in inland communities like Lehigh Acres and Immokalee.

Every LCEC customer on the hard-hit coastal communities of Cape Coral, Marco Island, Fort Myers Beach, and Sanibel were without power Friday, some 188,000 homes and businesses.

Unable to provide answers

LCEC buys its power from FPL, which provides a detailed online guide for those who have lost power to look themselves up by address to receive word on when the repairs that will restore their electricity will occur.

But more than 24 hours after landfall, residents in Sarasota County without power who used FPL’s guide to look up when that will change received the same message: “We are responding to Ian and are unable to provide a restoration estimate at this time.“

The same messaging was heard by residents in Charlotte County. Lee County. Collier County. And Glades and Hendry and Desoto and Highlands counties.

The company aims to provide an estimate of when service will be restored to 95% of customers in an area within 24 hours of a storm leaving that area.

In Sarasota County, FPL has 287,120 customers and 192,390 don’t have power. In Desoto County FPL serves 17,710 customers and 13,130 have gone dark. Highlands County is home to 550 customers and 370 are without power. In Glades County, FPL< services 3,640 homes and businesses of which 2,080 don’t have lights. And in Hendry County, those same figures are 11,020 and 6,550.

FPL said the assessment process will take longer in Southwest Florida because crews are hampered by extensive flooding, storm surge, downed trees and other debris in the area.

Because of the conditions FPL anticipates many customers will face prolonged outages. And many homes and businesses may have suffered extensive damage that makes them unable to safely accept power, the company said.

Granted, Hurricane Ian was one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the U.S.

Drones assessing damage

An FPL spokesman said damage assessment teams were working throughout FPL’s service area, including dozens of drone teams who are providing visuals of the damage. The drones will allow “FPL to send the right crews and the right equipment to the right places to restore power safely and as quickly as possible.”

FPL says it has a “restoration workforce” of 21,000 electricians and related line workers and managers working to repair outages caused by Ian. necessary supplies and equipment, are dedicated to the effort. The company has 38 staging area, it said, will the necessary equipment to fix the damage Ian brought.

One piece of good news, the company said, is FPL’s transmission system – which carries high-voltage electricity from power plants to substations and is the backbone of any electrical system – survived Ian.

But so much infrastructure in, around, and leading to demolished buildings will have to be rebuilt, perhaps outstripping any gains made by the intact transmission system.

As with most everything else about returning to everyday life after a Category 4 hurricane strikes a heavily populated coastal area, questions about how long it will take crews to repair the damage and restore power to all do not yet have answers.

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health.

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