Utilities face barrage of questions as power returns to Tampa Bay
They have many questions about the strength of local power utilities’ infrastructure and failing communication systems that forced angry residents to report the same outages multiple times before getting help.
Much of residents’ ire during and after the storm was directed at Duke Energy, the main provider in Pinellas County, where roughly 400,000 customers were left in the dark last week.
“I’m very concerned about the outages and the process that took place,” said state Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, who was named to a special House committee that will look at hurricane preparedness after Irma. “I intend to ask a lot of difficult questions.”
Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican running for governor, vowed to not take any more money from the electric utilities until they strengthen the power grid.
“In this cycle,” he said, “I’m done taking money from them.”
A Duke Energy spokeswoman defended the company’s efforts to prepare for a major storm, saying it has spent $2.4 billion on hardening the grid since the last major hurricanes hit Florida in 2004 and 2005.
Duke Energy Florida President Harry Sideris admitted that the company’s automated system broke down during Irma, leading workers to manually (and less reliably) track outages and restoration times. At a news conference Tuesday in St. Petersburg, he said Irma was a “monster” for Duke, causing 1.3 million outages statewide, more than the company anticipated.
“We understood that people are frustrated,” he said. “Power is such a vital piece of everybody’s life, and when it’s 93 degrees and you have no air conditioning, everybody gets frustrated.”
Electric companies called in thousands of out-of-state workers and fleets of trucks to restore service to more than 6 million customers after Irma raked the state Sept. 10. Few people found fault with the physical response, and many praised line crews for working long shifts.
“It was a pretty massive effort that they put forth,” Pinellas Commissioner Janet Long said. “The best we can do is the best we can do, and after that everything else is in the hands of God.”
But the hands of God were not enough for other leaders.
In many ways, Irma spared Tampa Bay, its winds weakening as it moved over land toward Lakeland. Some wonder just how bad the power situation could have been if the hurricane remained a Category 4 or 5 storm.
“It kind of settled down to a Category 1 by the time it got here, and it (still) knocked out almost 80 percent of the power in Pinellas County,” said St. Petersburg City Council chair Darden Rice.
Tens of thousands of customers were without electricity about five days after the storm. “We saw people got through the first three or four days just fine,” Rice said, “but after that people started getting restless, and we deserve to have our questions answered.”
Duke vowed that all Pinellas customers would have power back by midnight Friday but did not meet that mark, sparking frustrated social media posts from St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. He said he was “extremely disappointed” that the company failed to meet its self-imposed deadline and called it “irresponsible” for Duke to “give false hope to residents in need.”