Panhandle towns may not have electricity for weeks

Leaders in some counties are warning it could take up to a month to fully restore power to what is still standing and far longer for homes that were leveled and need to be rebuilt.

Members of Florida National Guard walk back to their trucks after patrolling Alligator Drive in Alligator Point on Oct. 11, 2018, one day after Hurricane Michael hit the area. [Tailyr Irvine | Florida Beach Insider photo]
Members of Florida National Guard walk back to their trucks after patrolling Alligator Drive in Alligator Point on Oct. 11, 2018, one day after Hurricane Michael hit the area. [Tailyr Irvine | Florida Beach Insider photo]

TALLAHASSEE – A week after Hurricane Michael's rampage, large swaths of the Florida Panhandle and tens of thousands of residents face a dark, powerless future. Major utilities say it will still take weeks to repair downed lines and poles and reconnect customers — and that's only for the homes and businesses in good enough shape to "take electrical service."

The reality is that mass damage left by Michael — which left a monster 80-mile-wide path of ruin — means it may take even more time to turn the lights back on in damaged structures. Leaders in some counties are warning it could take up to a month to fully restore power to what is still standing and far longer for homes that were leveled and need to be rebuilt.

The utilities also face a daunting challenge reassembling the shattered grid. Gulf Power spokesman Rick DelaHaya said there's a lot that can't be salvaged: "This isn't a restore… this is a rebuild."

There isn't even a clear picture yet of just how many structures are too badly damaged to turn on the breakers again. But officials across some hard-hit rural inland counties — like Jackson and Calhoun — estimate that anywhere from half to more than 70 percent of their housing stock has sustained significant damage that could render individual homes unable to tap into power. More than 63,000 people live in those rural inland counties alone.

It could be worse in coastal Bay County, homes to 180,000-plus, where Michael made landfall in Mexico Beach, bulldozing miles of houses, businesses and mobile homes. There was also heavy wreckage just up U.S. Highway 98 in Panama City, the largest city between Tallahassee and Pensacola.

In Calhoun, appraiser Carla Peacock faced the looming task of surveying the damage in her heavily forested county of 14,500 and reporting the data to the state.

But she was essentially trapped inside the county courthouse, where she rode out the storm with her husband, daughter, sister and parents. The streets were littered with giant trees and she wasn't able to make a single phone call -— not even to 911.

She estimated that 90 percent of the county's homes and businesses were damaged, but couldn't know for sure. In order to report damage to the state, she eventually used tax rolls and aerial photos from NOAA to assess the destroyed homes — including her own, which was impaled by a giant tree. She says it'll be a month or longer until residents can turn the lights on.

Power restoration usually starts with repairing and restoring power plants, transmission lines and substations, according to the Edison Electric Institute, and focuses on essential services and healthcare facilities like hospitals and fire and police departments.

Then, utilities will generally restore service to businesses, neighborhoods and homes. The institute noted that in some areas, storm damage will require that crews completely rebuild the energy grid before power can be restored.

But those utilities are responsible only for repairing what they own — namely, the wire or service line leading to a home and the meter box. Damage to electrical equipment attached to a house, such as the meter box or service stack, is usually up to a homeowner to repair.

After nearly a week, utilities and towns are still trying to determine how many of their customers will be able to access power as the repair trucks make their way across the damage zone. As of Tuesday evening, the state reported that 134,964 customers were still without power.

Many of the counties across the Panhandle are served in some way by two of the investor-owned utility giants — Duke Energy and Gulf Power — which are estimating 14 or so days before most of their customers can turn the lights on.

Duke Energy, which serves parts of hard-hit areas like Bay and Gulf counties, said it couldn't estimate how soon all customers would be able to turn on the lights. The expected dates for power restoration don't include customers who can't "accept service," which means customers in homes or businesses that were badly destroyed by the storm or, in some cases, completely gone.

"Naturally, we can't restore power to a property that is nonexistent," Duke spokeswoman Janine Saunders said. "There are many, many homes and businesses that were impacted in that way."

Gulf Power, which serves the majority of Northwest Florida, estimates that almost all customers should have power by Oct. 24 — two weeks after Hurricane Michael made landfall. At least the ones in shape to turn on the juice.
But the region also has a patchwork of municipal and cooperative utilities that think it may take longer to repair their grids. The region is also served partially by Florida Public Utilities, a third investor-owned utility, which relies on Gulf for power.

In Jackson County, not a single building was completely untouched by the wrath of Hurricane Michael, county emergency management director Rodney Andreasen said. He estimated 50 to 60 percent of homes were damaged or destroyed, and that it would take a month for the county's power grid to be restored.

Officials in Washington County are still cutting through debris to fully assess the damage. There are not yet definitive answers on when power will be fully turned back on. In Gadsden County, where multiple tornadoes touched down, crews aren't even able to suggest a timeline for full power restoration.

Calhoun County officials say they should get power restored in several weeks, but there is no guarantee. Nearly 70 percent of buildings there sustained "major damage" — declared uninhabitable and unable to be fixed for a month or longer.

In Holmes County, which is served by Gulf and by West Florida Electric, the latter has said nearly 3,000 residents are still without power and it could be several weeks before the area is fully restored, acting emergency management director Adrienne Owen said.

Utilities have implemented some storm hardening efforts since 2006, when the Public Service Commission — which regulates electric utilities in the state — directed them to do so statewide after the relentless barrage of storms in 2004 and 2005. Those efforts included more regular tree-trimming, replacing and improving power poles and recurring reports from utilities on their storm hardening plans.

But some measures like running more lines underground, particularly in rural communities, have been ruled out as too expensive.

After massive Hurricane Irma knocked out power for several counties across the state in 2017, the Legislature convened a select committee to address hurricane response and preparedness, though two recommendations that dealt with the utilities — one proposing improved communications among them and another that would have funded a study of feasible storm hardening measures — failed during session.

In the Panhandle, where major hurricane strikes — let alone top-end Category 4 hurricanes like Michael — are more rare, none of those storm hardening efforts could have truly blunted its impact, utilities say.

In Blountstown, structures crumpled under the wind like houses of cards and power lines tipped over like toothpicks. In Clarksville, trees littered neighborhoods and roofs slumped onto the ground. In coastal areas like Mexico Beach and Panama City, homes that were once there no longer exist.

DelaHaya, the Gulf spokesman, said while many power poles are still wooden and vulnerable to hurricane-force winds, Gulf has invested millions in upgrading substations, putting up concrete poles and working on putting utilities underground. Without those investments, "this could have been worse," he said.

It may be too early to say how this hurricane's impacts may change the power grid for future storms.

The focus in hard-hit places like Blountstown, Calhoun's county seat, is to make sure people have power as soon as possible, said Florida Municipal Electric Association executive director Amy Zubaly. "They're using what they can and what supplies they have available."

"I'm sure that all of the utilities will collectively be looking at this storm," Zubaly also said. But "the priority is to get people's lives back to normal as quickly as we can."

This article was originally published in the Tampa Bay Times on Oct. 16, 2018.

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This article was written by one or more Florida Beach Insider staff members.