An ‘army’ of line crews reconnects power in southwest Florida

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CAPE CORAL, Fla. — Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest electric utility, says it is making faster-than-expected progress in restoring service to areas devastated by Hurricane Ian last week.

“More resources are now collapsing in Southwest Florida,” says FPL boss Eric Silagy, “with our focus and our efforts to try to restore everyone sooner than expected, and that would be at close of business, end of day, Friday.”

But Silagy says the prediction only applies to FPL customers whose homes and buildings can safely receive power.

“Some sections, like Fort Myers Beach, it’s a search and rescue operation – and unfortunately in some areas – a salvage operation. And we’re just not going to put people at risk by electrifying that area,” Silagy said, adding, “I suspect this will continue for at least a week.”

The current will also take longer on Pine Island and Sanibel Island, which were directly affected by Ian. These areas are served by the Lee County Electric Cooperative (LCEC). Spokeswoman Karen Ryan said despite the devastation on the islands, it appears some surviving homes may be receiving power.

“All of our substations are on. We’re in great shape that way. It will just depend on access, access to the island,” Ryan says.

Bridges to both islands are too damaged to use, and Ryan says barges may be too impractical.

“A utility truck weighs, I don’t know, 13 tons. That’s a lot. One truck. And you need a lot of trucks and you need a lot of equipment and concrete poles,” Ryan says. “So it’s going to take time.

Things are moving much faster for LCEC on the mainland, where it serves suburbs and rural areas around Fort Myers. In Cape Coral, about 100 utility trucks are parked in two rows in a field behind big-box stores as team leaders receive their instructions for the day. James Cordella, from Long Island, NY is part of a group of newly arrived entrepreneurs.

“They keep us in trailers, like 36 men per trailer, three bunks high. Snoring and farting all night,” he laughs.

They work 16 hours a day, seven days a week, until the job is done. The work can also be risky.

“High voltage – getting electrocuted! Falling from the sky – a car could drive by and hit your truck, flip it over and send you flying out of it. Lots of risk involved,” he says.

But the pay is good, which helps attract workers from out of state after a storm. In some cases, they make twice as much money as at home.

Rusty Snider of LCEC, which organizes the work of out-of-town contractors, says a constant challenge after a storm is residents constantly approaching crews to ask when power will be restored.

“If you can imagine, [a crew chief] tries to focus on the circuits he’s doing, and he constantly has people pecking at his window, interrupting him. His focus is shattered,” Snider said. “So they’re avoiding that, making sure everyone’s working safely, that we’re activating the right thing at the right time, and that’s a lot for a guy here on the court. ”

As if to illustrate the point, during the morning safety briefing, a passing motorist slows down and yells at Snider, demanding to know why all the trucks are still parked, instead of working.

“We have a lot of people without electricity,” shouts the motorist.

“Thank you very much for your input,” Snider said emphatically.

The hundred trucks will soon be deployed. At this point, LCEC has all of its substations in working order, and the big problem that remains are bent or broken utility poles, draping power lines over rooftops and yards.

At the corner of Chiquita and West 19th Lane, a crew snagged the top of a half-broken pole with a hydraulic arm, while a lineman in a bucket truck applies a chainsaw just below the break. Cut, the pole swings menacingly. A resident sits in a lawn chair at the entrance to his garage and watches the spectacle above his head. Neighbors Cassandra Bishop and Tim Edge stay further back.

“We know they do what they do and they take their time doing it,” Bishop said.

Edge acknowledges that some people have been impatient.

“We actually saw a rep from LCEC walk by yesterday, and he said, ‘You’re the nicest guy I’ve talked to today. I understand the frustration there, but people think they can do it in a second, but look at this – it took about a few hours.”

Given the size and power of this storm, experts say it could have taken longer if Florida utilities hadn’t been beefing up their systems in recent years. LCEC spokeswoman Karen Ryan said the recovery has been made easier because more lines are being placed underground and they are also using rugged transformers for Florida weather conditions.

But she says obtaining this storm-grade gear has become more difficult over the past two years, due to supply chain issues.

“Previously the lead time was 12 weeks – now it’s a 123 week lead time for a transformer,” Ryan explains. “So we rationed them, in case we had a hurricane. And thank God we did, otherwise we’d be in dire straits right now, without equipment!”

Ryan says now, with this disaster recovery effort, this region will move to the top of the list for vendors of equipment such as these more resilient transformers. She thinks it could be the turn of other areas to ration their supply, as utilities in Southwest Florida rebuild their grid stronger for the next hurricane.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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