As the remnants of Irma dissipate from Tennessee to the Carolinas, work is underway to restore power to 15 million people in parts of south Florida hit by the former Category-5 Hurricane. That includes help from the Panhandle.
More than 150 Gulf Power storm crew left Pensacola and Panama City early Tuesday morning for heavily damaged areas, after power was restored to 13,000 customers in Bay County that was knocked out by Tropical Storm Irma’s high winds.
“We had no idea how hard we were going to be hit here, but, there was an expectation that we could see about 20,000 without power,” said spokeswoman Kimberly Blair. “When we saw that everyone here was taken care of, we knew it was time that we could send our crews out.”
For them and 33,000 other utility workers providing assistance downstate, some as far away as California and Canada, there’s plenty to do for everyone.
“One team in particular will be down in the Tampa area; that area right now has more than 300,000 customers without power,” Blair said. “Other teams may be dispersed to other areas. Things are moving quickly; it’s really kind of hard to know exactly where they’re going to be needed until they get on site.”
Gulf Power crews could be gone as long as three weeks helping in the massive coordinated effort to restore electricity in south Florida. Of its nearly 40 out of service area deployments since 2008, Blair says it’s different this time.
“There is a great expectation that much of the power grid in the south part of [Florida] will have to be rebuilt,” said Blair. “And that could mean transmission towers, new transmission lines; it could be quite a bit of work. And anyone who’s been [in the Pensacola area] for any length of time knows Hurricane Ivan [in 2004] impacted on our grid and how much work had to go into restoring and rebuilding it.”
That rebuild and hardening of infrastructure has cost Gulf Power more than $225 million. Investments in the power grid since 2010 have improved overall reliability by 20 percent for their more than 460,000 customers.
The response to Irma also served as a “shakedown cruise” of sorts for Gulf Power’s Emergency Management Center. Located at its McCrary Training Center in Pensacola, this is the first activation since it was built three years ago.
“Our teams train all the time and they do a lot of storm aid to other communities,” said the utility’s Kimberly Blair. “They get a lot of real-world training; we also train here on a regular basis, and we just had two storm drills right before Irma.”
The EMC, which can withstand 200 mile an hour winds,serves as a hub for major storm events, to coordinate and execute power restoration plans ASAP.