Florida towns face dark weeks without power: 'This isn't a restore. This is a rebuild'

Samantha J. Gross and Elizabeth Koh, Miami Herald on

Published in Weather News

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- 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.

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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.


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