BONITA SPRINGS, Fla. – Almost a week later Hurricane Jan lashed Florida and blazed a path of destruction that reached the Carolinas, more than half a million residents in the state faced another day without power Tuesday as rescuers continued to search for those trapped in flooded homes lingering flood waters.
A total of 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 Florida residents, restoring electricity has become one of the challenges.
In Naples, Kelly Sedgwick was watching news Monday of the devastation Ian caused as power was restored four days after the hurricane hit her southwest Florida community. Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Bonita Springs, Catalina Magilo was still using a borrowed generator to keep her children and grandfather awake while they waited for power to return.
Ian knocked out power to 2.6 million customers across Florida when it roared ashore with 150 mph (241 kph) winds and produced a powerful storm surge.
Since then, crews have been working feverishly to restore the electrical infrastructure. State officials said they expect power to be restored by Sunday to customers whose power lines and other electrical infrastructure are still intact.
About 520,000 homes and businesses in Florida were still without power Monday night — a number nearly equivalent to all customers in Rhode Island.
For those who were restored to power, it was happiness. Sedgwick said she was “relieved” to have her strength back and praised the crew for their hard work: “They did a great job.”
But for those who were still waiting, it was difficult.
“The heat is unbearable,” Medjila said. “If there’s no electricity … we can’t make food, we don’t have gas.” Her mother had trouble breathing and had to go to a friend who had electricity. “I think they should give power to the people who need it the most.”
Eric Silagy, chairman and CEO of Florida Power & Light — the state’s largest electricity provider — said he understands the frustration and said crews are working hard to restore power as soon as possible. The company expects to restore power to 95% of service areas by the end of the day Friday, he said.
A utility official said the remaining 5% is mostly made up of cases where there is a special situation that makes it difficult to restore power, such as a home that has been so damaged it can’t get power or an area that is still flooded. These outages do not include customers whose homes or businesses were destroyed.
Another major power provider in the affected coastal region, Lee County Electric Cooperative, said Monday it expects to reach the 95% mark by the end of Saturday. This figure does not include barrier islands like Sanibel which are in its service area.
Power restoration is always a key challenge after major hurricanes, when strong winds and flying debris can down power lines that distribute electricity to homes, or in stronger storms damage major parts of electrical infrastructure, such as power lines or power generation.
Silagy said the utility has invested $4 billion over the past 10 years to strengthen its infrastructure by doing things like burying more power lines, noting that 40% of its distribution system is now underground. The utility is also using new technology, such as drones that can stay in the air for hours to get a better picture of system damage, and sensors at substations that can alert them to flooding so they can shut down parts of the system before water hits .
Silagy said that during Jan’s time, he saw where that investment paid off. For example, on Fort Myers Beach, where so many homes and businesses were destroyed, concrete utility poles remain standing, he said. Silagy said the company also did not lose a single transmission structure in the 8,000 miles (12,875 kilometers) they drove through Florida.
Meanwhile, rescue and relief efforts across Florida remained difficult. In DeSato County, northeast of Fort Myers, the Peace River and its tributaries reached record highs, and boats were the only way to reach 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 at Pine Island and should be finished by the end of the week on a structure that will allow drivers to navigate safely at low speeds, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a news conference Monday.
The governor said a similar temporary bridge is planned to be built in nearby Sanibel, but it will take longer.
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There were downpours on the mid-Atlantic and northeastern coasts. The storm’s onshore winds dumped even more water into the already flooded Chesapeake Bay.
Norfolk and Virginia Beach declared states of emergency, although a change in wind direction prevented potentially catastrophic levels on Monday, said Cody Poche, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wakefield, Virginia.
President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden plan to visit Florida on Wednesday. The president was in Puerto Rico on Monday, promising to “get it all back together” afterwards. Hurricane “Fiona” knocked out electricity to the island two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, in areas of Florida still without power, many residents are using shared generators to keep refrigerators cool and using outdoor grills to cook.
In Bonita Springs, Paula Arbuckle sat outside her one-story home with the hum of a generator under her carport. She purchased a generator after Hurricane Irma hit the area in 2018 and left her area without power. She hasn’t used it since, but after Jan knocks out the light, she shares it with her neighbor. Arbuckle said it’s hard to be without energy.
“But I’m not alone,” she said. Gesturing to the neighboring house, she said: “I have a generator. They have a small child there. So we share the generator between the two houses.’
Associated Press reporters Bobby Cain Calvan in Fort Myers; Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee; Frida Frisaro and David Fisher in Miami; Ben Finley in Norfolk, Virginia; and Jeffrey Collins of Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.