By Cameron McWhirter, Erin Ailworth and Arian Campo-Flores
Block by block and city by city, utilities face one of the largest power restoration challenges in U.S. history as they bring back electricity to more than 15 million people affected by Hurricane Irma.
More than 50,000 utility workers from the U.S. and Canada are descending on Florida and other states hard hit by the storm, with more line crews and contractors expected soon, according to the Edison Electric Institute, an industry group. They are painstakingly repairing electrical substations, power poles, transmission lines and other parts of the grid knocked out by winds and floodwaters.
The aim is to restore power to hospitals and other critical facilities first, then bring the lights back to most residents as fast as possible. But utility and government officials acknowledge it will take days or even weeks for the herculean effort. Restoring full power after superstorm Sandy in 2012 took over a month.
More than six million U.S. customers remained without power as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the U.S. Energy Department, including roughly 4.8 million, or 48% of the total, in Florida; 932,000, or 22%, in Georgia; and 141,000, or 6%, in South Carolina.
Florida Power & Light Co., the state's largest investor-owned utility with nearly five million customers, said Irma at one point cut off power to roughly 4.4 million of them, and that 2.7 million remained out as of Tuesday afternoon. Florida is home to more than 20 million people.
The company estimated Tuesday that most residents in the eastern part of its territory would have power restored by the end of the weekend, while those on the western side, where the storm made landfall, would see power back by Sept. 22.
Duke Energy Corp., Florida's second-largest investor-owned utility with 1.8 million customers, also said Irma caused significant damage to its transmission system. Duke said it expects to complete restoration to the western portion of its service area by the end of Friday and by the end of Sunday for its central and northern areas. Restoration in two hard-hit counties, Hardee and Highlands, may take longer, it said.
Irma is a critical test of efforts to make the power grid more storm-resilient by replacing wind-damage-prone equipment such as wooden poles with concrete versions, placing the poles closer together to lessen the chance that debris could pull them down, and installing water gauges in substations to monitor flooding.
Utilities, which have spent billions in Florida alone on storm hardening, now have to assess whether those efforts were worth the money, and where they should perhaps be expanded.
Eric Silagy, chief executive of FPL, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Inc., said the $3 billion his company invested to upgrade its network after seven hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 helped lessen the destruction from Irma.
"Without this storm-hardening, we would have seen much more prevalent structural damage -- many more poles down, thousands and thousands, in my opinion," he said.
The utility says it is fixing outages at a much faster rate than it did after Hurricane Wilma in 2005. After just one day, workers restored 40% of outages from Irma, he said, compared with 4% for the same period after Wilma, according to FPL spokesman Robert Gould.
Irma was the first storm to hit all 27,000 square miles of FPL's service territory, Mr. Silagy said. To recover, the company has called in some 20,000 repair workers from utilities across the country and staged them at 30 locations around Florida, including the Daytona International Speedway, home to the Daytona 500, which had been turned into an impromptu pit stop for emergency crews.
Likening the effort to a military operation, he said each staging site is a mini-city outfitted to house and feed workers, who will go through an estimated 30,000 gallons of water and 200,000 gallons of fuel a day.
FPL will first focus on taking stock of the company's electricity-generating facilities to make sure they are operating correctly. Next, workers will check the transmission lines, which Mr. Silagy called the "interstates of electricity," to make sure they are transporting power as they should.
After that, work will focus on getting power back to critical facilities such as police and fire stations and storm shelters, and then power-delivery systems that feed large communities. Last will be individual streets and homes.
In Sarasota, Fla., FPL transformed the 65-acre Sarasota Fairgrounds into an encampment affectionately dubbed "Hotel Sarasota" for about 1,000 workers helping to restore power along Florida's west coast. On Tuesday it was lined with rows of 50 windowless trailers that sleep 28 on bunks, mobile shower units and mobile bathrooms, with more due to arrive from 29 states, spanning California to Massachusetts.
On Tuesday, large trucks arrived carrying spools of cable and stacks of transformers, while gasoline tankers lined up to help refuel the fleet of bucket trucks being dispatched in waves throughout the day.
Workers left for their 12-to-16-hour shifts with a boxed lunch before they expected to come back to a large hall to eat dinner -- and then head out again after eight hours of downtime to fulfill a singular mission.
"Get the power back up," said Tom Pitera, the logistics commander for the site. "That's the name of the game."
Wearing an FPL cap and sweating in 85-degree heat, Mr. Pitera said he lost his own power Saturday. His friends have been texting him to get service restored for their neighborhood. "I'm waiting like everyone else, " he said.
The problems the crews face are enormous. In a remote area of pine trees and scrub near Southwest Florida International Airport in Lee County, workers Tuesday were trying to repair concrete poles carrying main transmission lines that were broken or knocked over. The lines provided backup energy to the airport as well as power to other areas.
But the FPL contractors couldn't get to the poles because the area was inundated with water. One workman tried to walk out, but stopped when the water reached his chest. Workers sent a drone into the swampy area and shot video of the downed poles, but could do little else.
"This is Florida," said Jose Labrador, a company spokesman at the scene. "I don't know if there are gators back there. I don't know if there are snakes. Anything is possible."
Other utilities in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina were engaged in similar recovery efforts.
Scott Aaronson, director of security at Edison Electric Institute, said the industry's response to Irma will be a historic effort when factoring in the full extent of the storm, which hit the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico as well as all 67 counties in Florida, all 159 counties in Georgia and parts of Alabama and the Carolinas.
The peak number of outages so far was 7.5 million customers, Mr. Aaronson said, less than the 8.5 million attributed to Sandy, which affected 11 states including the New York metro area.
Bettina Abascal said the power went out at her house in South Miami around 5 a.m. Sunday, just as the storm was starting to build. In the aftermath, the biggest concern for the single mother, who lives alone with her 1-year-old son, Ignacio, was how he would fare in the heat.
Ms. Abascal, a 40-year-old agent for TV directors, used a solar-powered generator to drive a fan at night, but was afraid to take him outside due to the possibility of looters or other criminals.
Nearby, Ifi Ibennah and his girlfriend, Amaya Rodrigues, were trying to stay cool by drinking plenty of water and staying outside, though by Tuesday afternoon it was 89 degrees and humid.
Ms. Rodrigues's mother, Esther Rodrigues, said she worried that because their neighborhood wasn't near any vital businesses it could take weeks before FPL restores power.
"It's going to be a long time," said the elder Ms. Rodrigues, 61.
Write to Cameron McWhirter at [email protected], Erin Ailworth at [email protected] and Arian Campo-Flores at [email protected]