Here in the Sunshine State, if any electrical grid could ever be hurricane-proof, it would probably be that one. In recent years, the state’s utility companies have spent billions to upgrade the electrical grid to prevent a protracted, widespread blackout following a disastrous tropical hurricane. A 44,000-strong army of electrical contractors from across the nation was ready to respond when Hurricane Ian slammed southwest Florida in late September.
Electrical firms in Florida claim that their efforts were fruitful: Only a small number of customers are still without power two weeks after the storm, according to reports from Lee County Electric Cooperative and Florida Power & Light. However, the devastation is so bad in the worst-hit areas of Southwest Florida that it will be necessary to rebuild important distribution lines.
It could take weeks or possibly months for the lights to turn back on in Ian’s ground zero, which includes sites like Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel. Some vulnerable, elderly residents of the islands have refused to leave as they are being rebuilt, which means they are living without reliable access to lighting, refrigeration, and, in some cases, even water. While many have sought sanctuary elsewhere as the islands are being restored.
On San Carlos Island, Pat Pickett, 83, and her husband Leslie, 84, huddled inside their mobile home as the hurricane raged outside, bringing with it a storm surge that reached their chests. They still don’t want to go even though their mobile home is substantially damaged and covered in trash.
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They have been married for 63 years and have worked together in the Air Force since they first met while they were both in high school in Indiana. They relocated to San Carlos Island about 20 years ago; it is far less prosperous than the surrounding barrier islands and just as storm-prone. Pat is now concerned that leaving would make Leslie’s dementia worse.
Candles and a little silver flashlight are all that are used to illuminate their abode at night. Although the lack of electricity makes it too cold to take a shower, they are grateful to have running water. Pat Pickett sipped a warm beer as the sun started to set in the late afternoon. “It gets quite dark here,” she added.
preparing for a storm
It is no small accomplishment that the power is on everywhere in Southwest Florida. In certain areas of Florida, Hurricane Ian’s 150 mph gusts and 18-foot storm surge ripped houses from their foundations and turned streets into rivers. According to meteorologists, it is tied as the fifth-strongest hurricane to hit American soil.
According to an official state count, Ian caused more than 100 fatalities, making it the deadliest storm to impact Florida since 1935. The majority of casualties drowned, however, several deaths were specifically related to the blackout. The oxygen pumps that several elderly men relied on malfunctioned when the electricity went off, resulting in their deaths.
After numerous major hurricanes in recent years, Florida has seen widespread outages. Five major hurricanes struck Florida between 2004 and 2005, including Charley, which followed Ian’s course across Florida. A year later, Wilma wreaked havoc on the region and once more left hundreds of thousands without power.
The largest supplier in the state, Florida Power & Light, was accused of cutting corners on maintenance, putting locals at risk during storms.
According to Ted Kury, director of energy studies at the Warrington College of Business at the University of Florida, the Florida Public Service Commission compelled utility companies to sit down and carefully consider resilience. The establishment of yearly storm-preparedness briefings allowed businesses to exchange knowledge.
There were several actions taken. Concrete transmission poles were used in place of some wooden ones because they are less likely to break in strong winds. If they were too close to power lines, plants and trees were pruned. To avoid being knocked over, certain wires were buried, and to prevent flooding, some power plants and other crucial infrastructure were positioned behind tall walls.
Eric Silagy, CEO of Florida Power & Light, emphasised that all customers in areas where the grid doesn’t need to be repaired were back up within eight days even though more than 2.1 million people lost power during Ian. Within 24 hours, about two-thirds of clients were online.
Bryan Garner, director of communications for Florida Power & Light, said the company had looked at all Category 4 and 5 storms that made landfall in the US since the 1950s and couldn’t find any other examples where most powers had been restored to areas in the direct path of the storm in eight days or less. However, a full analysis is still being conducted.
The commendation was supported by some independent specialists. Given the scale and intensity of the storm, Michael Webber, an energy expert at the University of Texas in Austin, observed that “fewer people lost power than I would have predicted.”
In contrast, mutual aid agreements in the power industry permitted service providers to issue nationwide job postings for staff, much like fire departments and other emergency responders do in times of crisis.
Hundreds of electricity workers descended on residential areas in Cape Coral over the weekend to replace damaged distribution poles and reconnect cables. They were hauled up in cherry pickers. Although many were from Southwest Florida and had experienced the effects firsthand, others had come far. When a local asked whether there was another way, one line worker responded, “I can’t help you, ma’am, I’m from Maine.”
Electrical technicians trying to reconnect a local elementary school to the grid early on Friday morning were greeted with a cooler full of drinks, including numerous Coronas, in Port Charlotte, another severely affected town north of Fort Myers and Cape Coral. The beers were given to another resident, according to an FPL employee who was on the scene.
For the time being, personnel are concentrated on restoring as much electricity as possible. There will eventually be conversations about how to enhance the system once the current crisis is passed, particularly how to make it more resistant to storm surges that are higher than anticipated. Even in difficult regions like Fort Myers Beach, most of the distribution line poles are still intact thanks to all the precautions taken before Ian.
However, because salt water found its way into every crevice, there is nothing secure to connect the lines to even when they are in good condition. Unfortunately, it took Florida Power and Light and Lee County Electric Cooperative experiencing this for us to find out, said Kury.
Life without power
The measures Florida is doing to strengthen its electrical grid have drawn attention since climate change is causing the weather to become more unpredictable around the world.
According to Kury, “this is something that is of broad importance for utilities that are well beyond Florida,” and he added that the Philippines is putting together storm hardening sessions that are partially based on those that started in Florida 15 years ago.
But frustration is growing for others who must endure weeks of darkness. Residents of hard-hit areas claim that they are becoming increasingly frantic for refrigeration and air conditioning to prevent food spoilage. Lack of power prevents many remote workers from working. Water systems frequently rely on energy.
Ten miles north of San Carlos Island in Cape Coral under the scorching midday sun, tensions ran high at a Verizon store where a trailer had been set up for locals to charge their smartphones.
Despite being without power for more than a week following the hurricane, Ellen Richards, 62, said she could see electrical personnel working with her provider, Lee County Electric Cooperative. She was informed by a crew of New Yorkers working on a line near her home that they were still awaiting equipment.
Richards, a project manager for a financial payment company, claimed that the men assigned to her neighbourhood were simply sitting there. She claimed that this forced her to take paid time off because she was unable to perform her job without power or internet access.
Florida’s electrical grid may never be completely hurricane-proof, according to industry experts. While underground electricity lines may be protected from strong winds, they remain susceptible to flooding.
Dwellings’ electrical systems are also harmed by storm surges as high as those that slammed Fort Myers Beach, as salt water corrodes wiring and renders homes unfit for electricity. In the end, according to Silagy of FPL, he wants “pockets, rather than wide destruction, dependent on mother nature.”
A grid that is hurricane-proof does not exist, he declared.
Life continued in those areas more than a week after Hurricane Ian made landfall, but there was no power. People from the neighbourhood congregate outside Hurricane Tina’s Five Star Dive Bar in San Carlos Island after one recent day when the establishment gave out free beer to stressed-out locals.
The owner of the pub Tina Tomasino provided complimentary ice on Saturday as well. A former Fort Myers Beach resident brought a wood-fired oven down from North Carolina to make pizza. The Knack’s “My Sharona” was being played when college football games were being broadcast on television.
The sound of a dozen portable generators hums in the background.
When electricity would be restored to the island was unknown. Pat and Leslie Pickett are currently getting by on a lantern and a cooler filled with food from nearby assistance organisations, including sandwiches, beer, and water. Due to a nearby pump that supplied their trailer park, they also had access to water.
Although it was difficult, when the storm surge reached their trailer, it was far worse. With a hint of rage in her voice, Pat added, “The wind was crazy and the sea was a furious idiot.” Few others think they can survive on the island for very long the way it is now.
On Friday, when the Picketts insisted on spending yet another night in the dark, Charlie Whitehead, a neighbour who had offered them a tent to rest in, gave them his headlamp. Their benevolent neighbour’s problems don’t even begin with power. The storm completely wrecked Whitehead’s house.