Left in the dark, homes are last for electric company repairs

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Utility trucks became a more common scene in Bay Area neighborhoods, Wednesday -- and not a moment too soon for residents weary after three days without power.

Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc on the power grid after the storm came ashore Sunday afternoon.

It made landfall at Marco Island, 181 miles south of Tampa. From there, the storm moved through Naples, then headed north through Highlands, Hardee, and Polk Counties. Its track north through the Florida Peninsula meant both coast lines and about two-thirds of the state were impacted by the storm.  6 million people lost power.

Before the storm, utility companies hired extra crews from out of state and pre-positioned them safely out of harm's way. Once Irma was gone, the linemen and tree trimmers started pouring into Florida.

Duke Energy, which has customers in nearly every Bay Area County, says it hired 8,000 extra crews. On Monday, Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Baker said 500 of them arrived in Pinellas County within hours of the storm. Tampa Electric Co. (TECO) says 3,200 workers from the U.S. and Canada are helping restore power in its service area.

With thousands of extra utility crews working to restore power, residents wonder what's taking so long. They say crews have been noticeably absent from neighborhoods.  There's a reason for that, according to Duke Energy. 


It turns out, neighborhoods, and specifically homes, are at the bottom of a rather long priority list for repairs. Restoring power is a painstaking process, involving a number of steps -- the last of which is restoring power to individual homes. It starts according to Duke Energy, with repairs to transmission lines.

Transmission lines are high voltage lines that carry large loads of power long distances, often times from the power source. The lines are typically strung from large metal structures that tower overhead. They cut across farmland, through forests, countryside, and city landscapes as they deliver power across vast distances.

Once those repairs are complete, crews focus on substations and distribution lines, which deliver power to local service lines in cities and neighborhoods.

Once transmission lines and substations repairs are complete, crews begin working on the remaining local outages. Hospital comes first.  They are the top of a priority list of essential facilities necessary to protect public health and safety.  Law Enforcement agencies,  911 systems, and sewage plants, and water treatment plants are also given high priority. 


Finally, after all the work that's been done on transmission lines, substations, distribution lines -- and after power has been restored to essential public services, crews get to work in local neighborhoods.

As they repair downed power lines, untangle wires from tree branches, fix and replace blown transformers, the lights begin to come back on at home. Duke says it's possible that some homes in the same neighborhood still won't have power even after everyone else does. 

According to Duke, that's because not all homes run off the same circuits, and not all circuits are restored at the same time.

The sight of more utility trucks in local neighborhoods Wednesday is a sure sign of progress. It indicates the power companies are in their final stages of repairs.  Duke Energy, which still has 600,039 customers without power, (as of 3 p.m. Wednesday), says it'll take a few more days. It expects to have power restored to all of its Pinellas and Pasco customers by Midnight Friday, and by midnight Sunday, September 17, for the rest of Duke's customers.  Highlands and Hardee Counties are two notable exceptions. 

They were hit so hard by Irma, the company needs to rebuild its grid infrastructure -- and that may extend their time table beyond September 17.

Tampa Electric Company says 181,748 customers remained without power Wednesday afternoon.  Lakeland Electric had 25,072 people without power.

Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative said Wednesday it had completed power restoration to hospitals, shelters, and other critical facilities and is now focused on homes businesses. 

150,000 of its customers are still without power.  It could take up 10 days to store everyone’s service. It serves customers in Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Polk and Sumter Counties.