Candles, flashlights, no AC in Florida’s hurricane zone

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It’s the greatest need after a hurricane and sometimes the hardest one to fulfill: Electricity.

More than a week after Hurricane Michael smashed into the Florida Panhandle on a path of destruction that led all the way to the Georgia border, more than 100,000 Florida customers were still without power, according to the state Department of Emergency Management website.

Martha Reynolds sat outside her mother’s sweltering home Friday with relatives, including several young children, in a low-income Panama City neighborhood. The electricity has been off since the day Michael struck.

Candles and flashlights provide light after dark, she said, and they crank up a generator at night to power an air conditioner that cools four adults and five kids.

“We try to eat off the grill and keep as much ice as we can,” she said. “We’re all looking at each other, we’re all here, so that’s a blessing.”

A few streets over, Justin Ward’s family gathered under a canopy set up under a shady tree in front of their hot, powerless home.

“We’re making it. The power is on one street over. It’s supposed to be on here tomorrow,” he said.

While more than half the outages are in Bay County, where the storm came in between coastal Mexico Beach and Panama City, rural counties had a greater percentage of people without power eight days after the storm. That includes Calhoun County, where 86 percent of customers of the local electric cooperative had no electricity.

“We’re trying to make sure they understand how widespread the damage was and that we’re leveraging every resource that we possibly can to get it on as quickly as we can,” said Jeff Rogers, a spokesman for Gulf Power, which serves most of Bay County and seven other counties in the region. It doesn’t serve Calhoun. “This was an unprecedented storm.”

And it’s not an easy problem to solve quickly. In Bay County alone, thousands of utility poles were blown down or snapped in half like toothpicks. Power lines drooped over roadways or were tossed to the ground like piles of spaghetti.

Many transmission line towers — the enormous metal structures that bring electricity to substations that then route it into specific neighborhoods — were left in twisted piles or knocked to the ground.

Several power substations were damaged, and there were countless disrupted connections to individual homes.

New power poles and lines are going up quickly in a visible sign of progress.

Long lines of utility trucks snake through Panama City streets every morning on the way toward areas where service is still out. Workers suspended in buckets from nine trucks strung lines along just one street on Thursday, and the same scene was being repeated countless times each day.

Rogers said much of Gulf Power’s electricity sources — solar, gas and coal plants — are outside the storm region, so the power is available once transmission lines, substations and utility poles and lines are repaired. It will just be a matter of flipping a switch.

A week after the storm, Gulf Power had replaced 5,600 utility poles, a process that can take as little as 10 minutes or much longer depending on damage to the pole, connections to it, as well as trees and debris that could make access to it more difficult, Rogers said.

Gulf Power has about 1,200 employees working on power restoration, supplemented by 6,200 people from 15 states who are helping out.

But even far from the hurricane-damaged coast, northern rural counties were also struggling. In Jackson County along the Georgia and Alabama borders, more than 80 percent of customers were without power a week after the storm.

“Our electrical grid is totally destroyed,” said Rodney Andreasen, the county emergency management director. “Right now our biggest need is getting power back on. Power regeneration.”

Rogers said one big concern is that people are getting used to dead power lines lying on the ground or drooped in front of homes. As service is restored, those lines could be deadly.

Told that there were families in Lynn Haven that were using power lines in front of their damaged houses as a makeshift clothes line, he said: “Oh my goodness. That’s a little scary. Just stay away.”

“We’re starting to turn on and people get complacent after being around them a little bit,” he said. “It has been a week without power and you get kind of used to not being wary around them.”