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An 'army' of line crews is reconnecting the power in Southwest Florida

A power crew cuts a broken utility pole loose as they work to restore electricity in Cape Coral, Fla., after Hurricane Ian.
Martin Kaste
/
NPR
A power crew cuts a broken utility pole loose as they work to restore electricity in Cape Coral, Fla., after Hurricane Ian.

CAPE CORAL, Fla. — Florida Power & Light, the state's biggest electric utility, says it's making faster progress than anticipated in restoring service in areas battered by Hurricane Ian last week.

"More resources are now collapsing into Southwest Florida," says FPL boss Eric Silagy, "with our goal and our effort to try to get everybody restored earlier than we even planned before, and that would be by close of business, end of the day, on Friday."

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

"Certain sections, like Fort Myers Beach, that's a search-and-rescue — and unfortunately in some areas — a recovery operation. And we are simply not going to put people in harm's way by electrifying that area," Silagy says, adding, "I suspect that will continue for at least another week."

Power will also take longer on Pine Island and Sanibel Island, which took a direct hit from Ian. Those areas are served by the Lee County Electric Cooperative (LCEC). Spokeswoman Karen Ryan says despite the devastation on the islands, it appears some surviving houses could receive power.

"All of our substations are energized. We're in great shape that way. It will just depend on access, getting access to the island," Ryan says.

The 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. It's a lot. Just one truck. And you need a lot of trucks and you need a lot of equipment and concrete poles," Ryan says. "So that'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 out behind the big box stores as crew chiefs get their instructions for the day. James Cordella, from Long Island, N.Y. is part of a newly arrived group of contractors.

"They're keeping us in trailers, like 36 men to a trailer, three bunks high. Snoring and farting all night," he says with a laugh.

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

"High voltage — getting electrocuted! Falling out of the sky — a car could come by and hit your truck, tip your truck over and send you flying out of it. A lot of risks involved," he says.

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

LCEC's Rusty Snider, who's organizing the work of the out-of-town contractors, says a constant challenge after a storm is the residents who incessantly approach crews to ask when the power will be restored.

"If you can imagine, [a crew chief] is trying to concentrate on the circuits he's doing, and he's constantly got people pecking on his window, interrupting him. His concentration is broken," Snider says. "So they're fending that off, making sure everybody's working safe, that we're energizing the right thing at the right time, and it's a lot for a guy out here in the field."

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 out working.

"We got a lot of people there without power," the motorist shouts.

"Thank you very much for your input," Snider says flatly.

The hundred trucks soon fan out. At this stage, LCEC has all its substations working, and the big remaining problem are the leaning or broken utility poles, draping power lines across roofs and yards.

At the corner of Chiquita and West 19th Lane, a crew has 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 loose, the pole swings menacingly. A resident sits in a lawn chair in the entrance of his garage, watching the show above his head. Neighbors Cassandra Bishop and Tim Edge stay farther back.

"We know they're doing what they do and taking their time to do it," Bishop says.

Edge acknowledges some people have been impatient.

"We actually saw an LCEC rep come by yesterday, and he's like, 'You're the nicest I've talked to today.' I understand the frustration out there, but people think they can do this in a second, but look at this — this has taken a couple of hours or so."

Given the size and power of this storm, though, experts say it might have taken longer, if Florida utilities hadn't been hardening their systems in recent years. LCEC spokeswoman Karen Ryan says the recovery has been made easier because more lines are being placed underground, and they've also been using transformers that are hardened for Florida weather.

But she says getting that storm-grade equipment has become harder in the last couple of years, because of supply chain problems.

"It used to be a 12-week lead time — it's a 123-week lead time now for a transformer," Ryan says. "So we were rationing them, in case we had a hurricane. And thank goodness we did that, or we would be in dire straits right now, not having equipment!"

Ryan says now, with this disaster recovery effort, this region will jump to the head of the line for suppliers of equipment such as those tougher transformers. She thinks it may be other regions' turn to ration their supply, as utilities in Southwest Florida rebuild their network stronger for the next hurricane.

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

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.