Irma knocks out power to millions in Florida while Keys begin to reopen

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MIAMI — Millions of Floridians grappled with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma on Tuesday, confronting a daunting, uncomfortable reality. About half of the nation’s third-most populous state still lacked power in the storm’s wake, and for some of them, the lights may not come back on for days or even weeks.

“We understand what it means to be in the dark,” said Robert Gould, vice president and chief communications officer for Florida Power and Light (FPL), the state’s largest utility. “We understand what it means to be hot and without air conditioning. We will be restoring power day and night.”

But, he acknowledged: “This is going to be a very uncomfortable time.”

Across the state, that discomfort played out in homes that were silent without the usual thrum of perpetual air-conditioning. It meant refrigerators unable to cool milk and freezers unable to chill chicken. Even for those who had power, some were also struggling to maintain cellphone service or Internet access, sending Floridians into tree-riddled streets in an effort to spot a few precious bars of signal to contact loved ones.

Utility companies made progress, restoring power to some people. At its peak, the Department of Homeland Security said about 15 million Floridians -- an astonishing three out of four residents -- lacked power.

Throughout the day Tuesday, state officials gradually lowered the number of customers without power, dropping it to 5.2 million from 6.5 million a day earlier. Since each power company account can represent more than one person, the sheer number of people without electricity was daunting: Going by the Homeland Security estimates, at one point Irma had knocked out power to one out of every 22 Americans.

Gould said that for FPL, which powers about half of the state, customers on Florida’s east coast should have power back by the end of the weekend. People in western Florida, closer to where Irma made landfall on Sunday, should have it back by Sept. 22, nearly two weeks after that happened. But this does not include places with severe flooding or tornado damage, he said, and those areas could face a longer wait before the lights returned.

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The deteriorating storm once known as Hurricane Irma grazed through the Mississippi Valley on Tuesday, losing essentially all of its prior strength but still drenching some areas with rainfall. In its wake, people across the American southeast continued to recover,

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The remnants of once fearsome Hurricane Irma rolled through the Southeast on Tuesday, still carrying flood risks and leaving a staggering recovery effort in its wake that includes simply trying to turn the lights back on across huge swaths of Florida.

The unprecedented outages - knocking out power to more than half of Florida’s homes and businesses - also unleashed a cascade effect across the region. Millions of people who fled Irma may struggle to return home for weeks as crews try to deal with downed lines, debris and a storm-swamped electrical grid. Electrical power is needed, too, to keep water and sanitation systems operating.

For those with a generator, fuel supplies depend on the success of a logistical network trying to keep gas flowing to all points of battered and sweltering Florida.

“Power pretty much drives everything,” Christopher Krebs, assistant secretary for Infrastructure Protection at the Department of Homeland Security, said at a news briefing Tuesday.

Krebs said Tuesday morning that as many as 15 million people in Florida lacked power, an astonishing figure that represented three-quarters of the state’s entire population.

This number has evolved, though, as crews are able to navigate debris and try to restore power. State emergency officials said that some 5.4 million power company customers lacked power midday Tuesday, representing nearly 52 percent of all customers statewide - a figure that has been dropping since Monday.

Since each account can represent more than one person, the overall figures remained at remarkable levels. Perhaps most alarming to those in Florida who awoke without air conditioning or working refrigerators is the reality that in some cases, power may not return for days or weeks.

“This is going to take some time to restore, and in some circumstances, it will be a situation about rebuilding,” Krebs said.

FPL, which powers half of the state, said Tuesday that the east coast of the state should have power back by the end of the weekend, while on the west coast this process would take until Sept. 22 - nearly two full weeks after Irma began battering the state.

But there are exceptions in areas that saw severe flooding or tornado damage, FPL officials said.

Krebs’s figure offered Tuesday was was higher than those offered a day earlier by utility companies supplying power to a large number of Floridians.

Eric Silagy, president and chief executive of FPL, had said Monday as many as 9 million people were affected by his company’s outages alone. Shawna Berger, a spokeswoman for Duke Energy, said 1.2 million of its 1.8 million customers were without power Monday in the state. Berger said if you multiply that number by 2.5 - per the latest census data, she said - it shows that 3 million people were affected at the peak blackouts.

“We’ve never had that many outages,” Silagy said. “I don’t think any utility in the country has.”

Gov. Rick Scott, R, warned the many residents still stuck in the dark that “it’s going to take us a long time to get the power back up.”

Florida was not alone. Blackouts hit wide areas in Georgia and South Carolina - with more blows possible as the remains of Irma continue moving north.

Georgia power officials said Tuesday that about 800,000 people in the state lacked power. Some air service was scheduled to resume to Miami and other Florida airports, but hundreds of flights remained canceled in Atlanta, a key hub in the country’s air travel system.

The National Hurricane Center said Irma, now classified as a post-tropical cyclone, was expected to weaken throughout the day Tuesday as it moves through the Southeastern United States en route to the Tennessee Valley.

In a sign of how the storm had lost steam as it moved inland, the hurricane center said its advisory Tuesday morning was the final dispatch it would release on Irma.

Still, Irma was not entirely done. The hurricane center said its rain bands would cause “localized intense rainfall” that could lead to flash flooding, even as the storm’s rainfall left behind flooding in Florida and potentially Georgia and Alabama.

In Jacksonville, the city tucked along Florida’s northeast coast that sustained historic flooding as the St. Johns River swelled, the sheriff’s office said Tuesday that mandatory evacuation orders have been lifted.

Rescuers had used boats, water scooters and even surfboards to get to residents surprised by the rising waters, said Kimberly Morgan, a spokeswoman for the Clay County emergency center. “You have to get creative in a situation like this,” she said.

The sheriff’s office said 356 people were rescued from the flooding and added an admonishing note on Twitter, saying it hoped that those people “will take evacuation orders more seriously in the future.”

Remarkably, the storm could have been much worse.

That was the grateful mantra on the lips of many who surveyed the damage in the mainland United States. Though there was significant property damage in the Florida Keys and in some parts of southwest Florida, officials said they were investigating just a small number of fatalities that came as the storm made landfall. It was unclear how many were directly related to the storm.

These deaths extended through Florida and Georgia. Police in Winter Park, Florida, outside Orlando, said a 51-year-old man was apparently electrocuted by a downed power line in a roadway. The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia said it was investigating a woman who was killed when a tree fell on her vehicle.
Damage to water supplies in the Keys remained a top concern, however. A Defense Department statement said an estimated 10,000 people who rode out the hurricane in the Keys could still face evacuation. But there were no immediate plans underway to move people from the island chain.

Authorities in Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, said they would begin allowing residents and business owners to return to some parts of the archipelago on Tuesday morning, including Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada.

In a message posted online, Monroe County officials said people heading back to the Keys should remember that “most areas are still without power and water,” cellphone reception is questionable and most gas stations remain shut.

Marilyn Miller awoke in St. Petersburg at 1:30 a.m. Monday to a pitch-black house. A native Floridian, Miller was expecting the outages and has even gotten used to them after enduring years of tropical storms.

What she didn’t expect, she said, was the possibility that the blackout could last for days. As neighbor after neighbor on her block tried to call Duke Energy for help, they heard that just 80 homes in their neighborhood had lost power - out of more than 100,000 across Pinellas County.

It became clear, Miller said, that her neighborhood would not be a priority. So she started making readjustments to a time before technology.

“I need my cellphone. It wakes me up in the morning for work. I need my air conditioner at nighttime,” she said. “Can’t cook. Can’t see. Can’t do anything.”

The city of Miami Beach, one of many that had been evacuated as Irma approached, reopened Tuesday morning for residents to return home, though it warned people to be careful amid fallen trees and downed power lines.

In Miami, meanwhile, signs remained across the city’s streets also remained of the hurricane’s fury and the tragic possibilities that might have been.

Sailboats on Miami’s Coconut Grove marina were flipped over. Million-dollar yachts were half submerged in the bay. Once idyllic parks looked like desolate war zones. Large trees toppled over, roots dangling in the air.

Resident Paul Plante came to the marina to check on his home and boat, which he had docked indoors. His boat was fine, and he and his sister looked in disbelief at the submerged boats in the bay that weren’t so lucky.

“You have to take nine different roads to get here now, but everything was okay,” he said. “The storm surge could have been so much worse. We’re lucky.”

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Brian Murphy, William Wan, Angela Fritz and Sandhya Somashekar in Washington, Darryl Fears in Orlando, Perry Stein and Joel Achenbach in Miami, Patricia Sullivan in Estero, Fla., Lori Rozsa in Gainesville, Fla., Dustin Waters in Charleston, S.C., and Scott Unger in Key West, Fla., contributed to this report.

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