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The lights are on in Pinellas - mostly
Duke Energy misses third estimate date for power restoration
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A week after Hurricane Irma, Duke Energy’s says 99 percent of customers in Pinellas have power. Line workers from across the United States and Canada have been doing their best to fulfill Duke’s promise of complete power restoration as soon as possible.
CLEARWATER – One of the most important parts of the recovery phase from Hurricane Irma is restoration of power. However, despite Duke Energy’s best efforts, 9,256 customers still were without power as of 10 p.m. Sunday.

Duke had estimated that power would be restored in Pinellas by midnight Friday, but that estimate didn’t prove true with nearly 60,000 still without power at 9 p.m., when the last power restoration update of the day was posted online. 

Same scenario repeated Saturday night, with the midnight deadline passing with 14,088 still without power at 6 a.m. Sunday. Duke released information that said 99 percent of Pinellas customers had power restored as of Sunday night, but no numbers were available past 10 p.m., as the automated outage tracking system was not working.

"To the many people who have given a 'shout out' to our lineman and expressed their appreciation, we thank you," said Harry Sideris, Duke Energy Florida state president. "At the same time, we deeply apologize for not meeting our customers' expectations. They expect and deserve better from us. Our customers are angry and frustrated that we could not provide them better information. I want to reassure them that we have not stopped and will not stop until our customers are restored."

If you are still without electricity, please call 1-800-228-8485 or text OUT to 57801.

The big story in the aftermath of the hurricane in Pinellas was power outages that lasted for more than a week for ome. The lack of electricity has caused problems all through the county. 

From a law enforcement perspective, lack of power for traffic signals was a major issue. Gualtieri said 300 signals had been inoperable immediately after Irma passed by. He assigned 285 deputies to manage traffic at those intersections, which was a dangerous job in the dark.

As of Thursday, Sept. 14, 197 signals still were inoperable and traffic in those areas were being managed by deputies or by the use of stop signs, reminding motorists to treat the intersections as a four-way stop.

Another major problem was the heat, especially among the elderly population. After eight residents of a nursing home in south Florida died Wednesday, Sept. 13, most likely due to lack of air conditioning, the county began working with fire departments and other partners to try to prevent heat-related problems, especially among the elderly.

An effort began to locate facilities with working air conditioners willing to serve as public cooling stations during the heat of the day. Nearly 50 stations were open on Friday. County Communications also put out information with tips on how to avoid becoming ill.

The county’s pump stations also took a hit with 200 of the 306 stations losing power. As of Sept. 14, power had been restored to 124 and 76 were being managed with generator power. Utilities customers were asked to limit water flowing into the sewer system and to postpone doing laundry, running dishwashers and flushing toilets, if possible. The water supply was never a problem and remained safe for residents to drink.

Six hospitals, 55 nursing homes and 152 assisted living facilities lost power during the storm. As of Sept. 14, all 17 of the county’s hospitals were operational. Bay Pines VA Hospital announced it facilities were all operational Friday afternoon with the exception of its Palm Harbor location. Other facilities either had power or were operating on generators. Supplies of gas, food and ice were being delivered as needed.

Pinellas County was one of Duke Energy’s hardest hit areas when Hurricane Irma passed by Sunday and Monday, according to Duke Energy spokesman Neil Nissan. Duke Energy Florida serves 35 counties in the state.

"We are making significant progress getting power back on for our customers," said Harry Sideris, Duke Energy Florida president on Friday. "We're glad to have restored 1 million customers, but we won't be happy until all customers have power. We thank all of our customers for their patience and will not stop working until the job is done."

Sideris added that over 3,000 power poles, more than 1,100 transformers and more than 1,000 miles of wire are being replaced due to storm damage.

Pinellas County commissioners discussed the power problem during its regular meeting Sept. 14.

Commissioner Ken Welch said he was a former 14-year employee of Florida Power … “and frankly I’m shocked that we lost 79 percent capacity (of the electrical system) and the storm didn’t even hit us directly.”

Assistant County Administrator John Bennett pointed out that it had been many years since Pinellas had experienced a heavy wind event like what went on when Category 2 Hurricane Irma buffeted the county with 80-90 mph winds.

Peak wind gusts reported around the county was 91 mph at Fort De Soto, 87 mph in Belleair and 84 mph on Clearwater Beach.

Bennett said steps needed to be taken to make the electrical system more resilient and redundant.

“The whole state felt this. It should be a top priority,” he said.

State of emergency extended

County commissioners agreed during a special meeting Sept. 14 to extend a local declaration of emergency for an additional seven days, to help ease the recovery phase after Hurricane Irma.

Commissioners approved the initial local state of emergency Sept. 7 – the same day they ordered a Level A evacuation, which included all mobile homes. Level B evacuations were ordered on Sept. 9.

Extending the emergency declaration allows the county to continue storm-related health, safety and welfare activities. It ensures FEMA reimbursements, ongoing coordination of partners, continuation of enhanced consumer protections and debris management.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri updated commissioners on the latest from a law enforcement perspective and thanked commissioners for their support, saying they “got it right” about how and when they ordered evacuations that involved about 300,000 residents.

“In my 35 years in the county, I’ve never seen such as collaborative effort across the board,” the sheriff said of the actions taken to prepare, respond and begin recovery operations. “Residents should know that everyone worked to the best of their ability. It couldn’t have been done better.”

Gualtieri admitted that some “tweaks” might be needed and that there had been “lessons learned.”

“We’re not out of the woods yet on this,” he said.

Getting ready for Irma

As it became evident that Hurricane Irma would have a direct effect on Pinellas County, local governments and residents sprang into action. Thousands of sandbags were distributed, including 330,000 by the county alone.

Gas shortages quickly became a problem, as did the lack of an adequate supply of necessities such as water, ice, batteries and flashlights. Store shelves were bare as residents stocked up on food. Plywood to board up windows became scarce. Local stores did their best to keep up with demand, but it was too great.

Bennett referred to resident’s preparation efforts as the “Harvey effect,” during a Sept. 7 meeting.

“Everyone is making sure they’re prepared, which we want,” he said.

The county opened 17 shelters, which housed more than 23,000 residents, including 260 homeless individuals and 650 from Pinellas Hope and Safe Harbor. Nearly 1,700 special needs residents were sheltered. More than 2,000 pets were kept at either one of the three pet-friendly shelter or at Animal Services and at the homes of volunteers.

Detention deputies at the Pinellas County Jail, which is located in a Level B evacuation area, worked to make sure the 3,000 inmates remained safe by relocating them to the most hurricane-hardened areas in the jail. Gualtieri admitted it was a challenge, as 200 inmates were already sleeping on the floor.

When the first evacuation order went out, officials were concerned that residents and businesses weren’t listening, especially those on the barrier islands. People who lived or worked in evacuation zones A and B, plus mobile home residents and those with special needs were given until 6 a.m. Sept. 10 to vacate their premises.

Local law enforcement began restricting access to the barrier islands at 6 a.m. Friday, Sept. 8. Only residents, property owners, business owners, business employees and contractors with a reason to be in the area were allowed onto the islands.

To gain access, people needed a re-entry permit, or photo ID and proof they that lived or had business on the islands. At a press briefing Sept. 8 at the county Emergency Operations Center in Largo, Gualtieri explained that the Barrier Island re-entry permit program had been in place for three years and communicated to the public.

Still, “Hundreds of people are showing up that don’t know about it,” he said.

All access onto the barrier islands was restricted Sept. 10. Multiple deputies were assigned to the islands and other areas under evacuation orders to provide security.

As Irma continued churning its way toward Florida, its path still uncertain, officials began to become more urgent in the message to people to evacuate as soon as possible.

According to Florida law, people who don’t follow mandatory evacuation orders can be arrested. But Gualtieri made it clear that local law enforcement had no intention of arresting people who wouldn’t leave, nor would they be going door-to-door to make sure people leave.

Gualtieri said more people began to follow the evacuation orders on Sept. 10, and deputies did their best to convince people to leave. However, some people were not making good decisions, he said. He told a story about a man who had decided to remain on his boat with his 10-year-old son. Deputies gave him the choice of leaving with his son, or they were going to take his son away.

“He made the right decision,” the sheriff said.

During the storm

Gualtieri reminded residents throughout all the preparations that there would come a time when it would become unsafe for first responders to be out in the storm.

First responders continued to work, responding to 911 calls, assisting with last-minute evacuations and providing security until sustained wind speeds reached 40-50 mph. The sheriff used special equipment to keep some personnel on the streets until the winds reached 50-60 mph.

A group of three volunteers braved hurricane conditions to answer an emergency call at a shelter in Dunedin with an inoperable generator. The special needs shelter housed a number of residents on oxygen. The three men were able to repair the generator much to the relief of those inside and the nurses assigned to take care of those with special needs.

Gualtieri reported that the streets were “pretty desolate” just before he sent the last of his personnel to shelters.

Irma was a Category 2 hurricane when it passed to the east of Pinellas, bringing high winds and rainfall of 8-9 inches, which caused some flooding. The county got lucky, storm surge, the biggest concern, was only 1-3 feet. At one time, when Irma was expected to hit Pinellas directly as a Category 3 or stronger, storm surge had been forecast to come in at 8-10 feet.

After the storm

Gualtieri sealed off the county after Irma passed until first responders had time to assess damage and begin responding to calls for assistance. As soon as it was safe, he lifted the restriction and allowed people to begin flowing in and out.

The bridges in and out of the county and those connecting to the barrier islands had been closed during the storm. Florida Department of Transportation inspected them for damage and they reopened on Monday.

County, state and municipal government offices, local schools and businesses, which closed ahead of Irma’s arrival, remained closed mostly due to power outages. PSTA buses stopped running when conditions became unsafe and ran a limited schedule until Sept. 14. Most county, state and municipal offices had reopened as of Sept. 14. County parks were scheduled to reopen Sept. 16 and schools on Sept. 18.

Stores got back to business as quickly as possible, some operating on generators, and scrambled to resupply their shelves. Many gas stations had no fuel. But petroleum vessels were arriving and unloading at the Port of Tampa as of Sept. 13. Florida Highway Patrol was escorting tanker trucks to their destinations, as it did ahead of Irma’s arrival.

The county was littered in debris and downed trees. Most had been cleared from roadways as of Sept. 14. Curbside pickup of residential and business debris was scheduled to begin in most locations on Sept. 18.

According to a preliminary damage assessment of 68,757 properties in the county, 7,017 were affected with major damage to 984 of them and minor damage to another 5,588. Seventy were destroyed.

A small number of Pinellas County residents remained in shelters as of Thursday, including special needs residents and a few others that are unable to return to their homes. Work was continuing to reunite pets with their owners.

The county’s Citizen Information Center remained open before, during and after the storm and answered more than 55,000 calls as of Sept. 13. The center will stay open as long as needed. Call 727-464-4333.

Twenty-six deaths had been confirmed in the state as of Sept. 15, including a 68-year-old Largo man who was packing up his vehicle Sept. 7 getting ready to evacuate Sept. 7. According to Bill Pellan, director of investigations at the Pinellas County Medical Examiner’s Office, the man fell and struck his head. He died Sept. 8.

Commissioner John Morroni thanked “everyone who worked on this hurricane from the volunteers to the governor.” He pointed out that the last-minute change in Irma’s path helped avoid a lot of deaths in the state, as did the preparations of the public, who had Hurricane Harvey on their minds.

“We made it through it. We made it through it as a community, and we’ll make it through it to the end,” Commissioner Dave Eggers said.

For the latest information on the recovery phase, visit www.p­inell­ascou­nty.o­rg.

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