Pinellas County began cleanup efforts Monday after Category 2 Hurricane Irma passed by, leaving about 420,000 without power.
Residents hunkered down Sunday afternoon through Monday morning as tropical storm force winds and then hurricane force winds buffeted the area for more than 12 hours.
The biggest problem was power outages. Duke Energy Florida serves 35 counties in Florida, including Pinellas. As of Monday afternoon, 1.2 million of Duke’s 1.8 million customers were without power, according to Harry Sideris, president of Duke Energy Florida.
As of 4 p.m. Monday, 420,000 in Pinellas were without power and power had been restored to nearly 41,000 customers. The best estimate for power restoration is about a week, maybe more in some areas .
Crews were out accessing damage and making repairs. Sideris estimates that damage assessments will be complete by Tuesday.
“An army of people” are coming to assist including 9,000 linemen, 3,000 of which will be assigned to Pinellas. He said Duke Energy was committed to getting power restored as quickly as possible.
The other big problem was traffic signals. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said hundreds of traffic signals were out throughout the county. Seventy deputies had been assigned to intersection duty, but more was needed. He said he was assessing the need and working with municipal police to get more intersections covered. He said he would ask for help from outside the county if needed.
Meantime, motorists need to treat intersections as four-way stops to avoid crashes.
“It is physically impossible to control all the intersections,” Gualtieri said.
Residents also were being asked to curtail water use to take pressure off the sewer system as lift stations were affected by power outages.
Most other damage reports coming in involved debris, downed trees and some flooding. Most primary roads were open and assessment continued for secondary roads.
About 1,700 people remained in shelters Monday afternoon - about 10 percent of the number that had been served, staring on Friday. Pinellas County issued a Level A and Level B evacuation orders, which included all mobile homes, affecting about 160,000 residents.
Restricted access to the barrier islands was lifted Monday afternoon, and all bridges were open.
Pinellas County offices may reopen on Wednesday, depending on power restoration. Solid Waste will be open on Tuesday. County parks and Heritage Village will reopen on Sept. 16. Schools remained closed with no official word on when they would reopen.
St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport planned to reopen on Tuesday.
Residents were asked to beware of price gouging and to be wary of hiring anyone to do repair work on their homes or businesses that weren’t licensed contractors. Officials also advised to not pay the full cost of repairs in advance.
Fuel supplies were OK, according to Gualtieri. Port of Tampa was reportedly reopening and fuel tankers were standing by to make deliveries. Gov. Rick Scott has ordered that all fuel trucks be escorted by Florida Highway Patrol to get them to their destinations quicker.
Several stores, including some of the bigger box stores, announced they would be opening on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, residents were asked to use caution as they moved around the county and to report any problem to authorities. Watch for debris on the roads and don’t drive through standing water.
Pinellas County “planned for the worst, and hoped for the best,” as was said repeatedly during the many press briefing held ahead of Irma’s arrival.
Fortunately, Pinellas dodged the bullet, Irma took a north turn and tracked east, making landfall in Marco Islands Sunday afternoon. Interaction with land weakened the storm, which had been forecast to pass over Pinellas a Category 3 or 4.
Peak wind gusts reported around the county was 91 mph at Fort DeSoto, 87 mph in Belleair and 84 mph on Clearwater Beach. Rainfall totals up to 8 inches were reported in some areas.
Officials were asked for patience as cleanup efforts continued with plans to return to normalcy as soon as possible.