BONITA SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) — Nearly a week after Hurricane Ian slammed into Florida and cut a path of destruction that reached the Carolinas, more than half a million residents across the state faced another day without power Tuesday as rescuers continued their search of those trapped in homes inundated by prolonged flooding.
At least 78 people have been confirmed dead from the storm: 71 in Florida, four in North Carolina and three in Cuba since Ian made landfall on the Caribbean island on September 27 and in Florida a day later.
Search and rescue efforts are still ongoing in Florida, where more than 1,600 people have been rescued across the state.
But for many Floridians, restoring power has become a chore.
In the city of Naples, Kelly Sedgwick was watching news images Monday of the devastation caused by Ian as power was restored four days after the hurricane hit her southwest Florida community. Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Bonita Springs, Catalina Mejila was still using a borrowed generator to try to keep her children and their grandfather calm as they waited for their power to be restored.
Ian knocked out power to 2.6 million customers in Florida when it roared ashore with winds of 150 mph (241 km/h) and produced a powerful storm surge.
Since then, crews have been working frantically to restore electrical infrastructure. State officials said they expected power to be restored by Sunday to customers whose power lines and other electrical infrastructure were still intact.
About 520,000 homes and businesses in Florida were still without power Monday night — an amount nearly equivalent to all customers in Rhode Island.
For those to whom power was being restored, it was a blessing. Sedgwick said she was “relieved” to get her power back and praised the crews for their hard work: “They did a remarkable job.”
But for those still waiting, it was a tall order.
“The heat is unbearable,” Medjila said. “When there’s no electricity… we can’t cook, we don’t have gas.” Her mother has breathing problems and had to go to a friend who had electricity. “I think they should empower the people who are most in need.”
Eric Szilagyi, chairman and CEO of Florida Power & Light — the state’s largest electricity provider — said he understands the frustration and said crews are working as hard as they can to restore power as soon as possible. The company expects to restore power to 95 percent of service areas by the end of the day Friday, he said.
A utility company spokesman said the remaining 5 percent mostly includes cases where there is a special situation that makes it difficult to restore power, such as the home is so damaged it can’t get power, or the area is still flooded. These outages do not include customers whose homes or businesses were destroyed.
Another major power provider in the hard-hit coastal region — Lee County Electric Cooperative — said Monday it expects to reach the 95 percent mark by the end of Saturday. This figure does not include barrier islands such as Sanibel that are in the service area.
Restoring power is always a key challenge after major hurricanes, when strong winds and flying debris can knock down power lines that distribute electricity to homes, or in stronger storms damage essential parts of electrical infrastructure, such as transmission lines or power generation.
Szilagyi said the company has invested $4 billion over the past 10 years to strengthen its infrastructure by doing things like burying more power lines, noting that 40 percent of their distribution system is now underground. The company is also using more technology like drones that can stay in the air for hours to get a better picture of system damage, and sensors in substations that can alert them to flooding so they can shut down parts from the system before the water hits.
Szilagyi said he saw during Ian’s time where those investments paid off. In Fort Myers Beach, for example, where so many homes and businesses were obliterated, the concrete pillars remain standing, he said. Silagy said the company also hasn’t lost a single transmission structure in the 8,000 miles (12,875 kilometers) they have across Florida.
Meanwhile, rescue and recovery efforts in Florida remain difficult. In DeSoto County, northeast of Fort Myers, the Peace River and tributaries reached record high levels and boats were the only way to get supplies to many of the county’s 37,000 residents.
Ian washed away bridges and roads to several barrier islands. About 130 Florida Department of Transportation trucks have begun work on a temporary bridge to Pine Island and by the end of the week should be finished on a structure that drivers can cross carefully at slow speeds, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said during the press conference on Monday.
The governor said a similar temporary bridge is planned for nearby Sanibel, but it will take longer.
Elsewhere, the remnants of the hurricane, now Nor’easter, aren’t done with the US
The Mid-Atlantic and Northeast coasts were experiencing flooding. The storm’s onshore winds piled even more water on the already flooded Chesapeake Bay.
Norfolk and Virginia Beach declared states of emergency, although a shift in wind direction prevented potentially catastrophic levels Monday, said Cody Poche, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wakefield, Va.
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden plan to visit Florida on Wednesday. The president was in Puerto Rico on Monday, vowing to “restore everything” after Hurricane Fiona knocked out all power to the island two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, in Florida neighborhoods still without power, many residents are sharing generators to keep things like refrigerators cool and using outdoor grills to cook food.
In Bonita Springs, Paula Arbuckle sat outside her one-story home as the sound of the generator under her shed roared. She bought a generator after Hurricane Irma hit the area in 2018 and left her neighborhood without power. She hasn’t used it since, but after Ian turns off the lights, she shares it with her neighbor. Arbuckle said it’s hard to be without energy.
“But I’m not the only one,” she said. Pointing to her neighbor’s house, she said, “I have a generator. They have a little baby there. So we share the generator between the two homes.”
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