Millions of people in Florida and other southeastern states, along with Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands, remain without power, making Hurricane Irma the worst weather-related power outage in U.S. history, according to estimates.
A record 8.3 million customers lost power. The previous record number to lose power occurred in the wake of Superstorm Sandy in 2012 when 8.1 customers in more than a dozen states lost power, according to Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist and contributing writer to Grist.
Florida was the hardest-hit state, although electric utilities in Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina are struggling to restore power to their customers. Since customers includes homes and businesses, these numbers do not reflect the full amount of individuals who lost electricity. Without electricity, the combination of heat and humidity, combined with residents who require electricity for medical care, is making life difficult for Florida residents, especially the elderly.
Utility officials are warning residents that it could take weeks to get the lights back on in parts of the Southeast. One of the hardest-hit areas was Southwest Florida, where Florida Power & Light is the primary utility company. “We anticipate that much of the electric system in Southwest Florida will require a complete rebuild, which could take weeks. In contrast, we expect our electric system along Florida’s East Coast will require more traditional repairs,” FPL President and CEO Eric Silagy said in a statement.
Other states also face long roads to recovery. Restoration of power in Georgia “could take several days, if not weeks,” depending on the level of damage and whether crews have safe access to areas, Georgia Power stated Tuesday in a news release.
Federal officials are urging residents to remain patient. The White House said Monday it will take “weeks” to fully restore electricity to Florida following Hurricane Irma, which left more than half of Floridians without power, according to some estimates. “I would caution people to be very patient here,” said Tom Bossert, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism. “We could have power down in homes for the coming weeks. Weeks.”
FPL, the largest electric utility company in Florida, estimated that more than 2.8 million of its 4.9 million customers were still without power Tuesday morning. At the height of the outages, 4.4 million FPL customers were without power. Duke Energy Florida reported outages totaling 1.2 million at the height of the storm. The utility serves 1.8 million customers in the state, from the Florida panhandle south to the central part of the state.
Georgia Power reported 870,000 customers without electricity Tuesday morning, which is roughly half of their residential customer base. By late Monday, nearly 273,000 electric customers across South Carolina had lost power as tropical storm force winds covered the entirety of the state. Alabama Power said 23,000 customers, mostly in the eastern part of the state, were without power due to Irma. Georgia Power and Alabama Power are subsidiaries of Atlanta-based Southern Co.
In Puerto Rico, the government announced 1 million people lost power from Irma. Although Puerto Rico did not take a direct hit from Irma, thousands of residents are still without power on the island. Puerto Rico, an unincorporated U.S. territory, has about 3.4 million residents. The U.S. Virgin Islands was the hardest hit of any U.S. state or territory, with large numbers of homes destroyed and widespread power outages.
Across Florida, elderly and sick people were stranded in hospitals and nursing homes facing power outages or sporadic power, the New York Times reported. As of Monday evening, 54 hospitals were operating on backup generators, according to data reported to the Florida Department of Health. A large number of the state’s assisted living facilities, whose residents often rely on electricity-dependent medical equipment, had no backup generators and reported being completely without power on Monday, according to the report.
For customers using electric generators, FPL advised residents to set them up outside, away from all open windows, to prevent deadly exhaust from entering a home. During power outages, residents will sometimes run their generators inside their homes or garages. In March, a couple in Michigan died of carbon monoxide poisoning while running a generator inside their enclosed garage attached to their house during widespread power outages from a windstorm.
Many deaths that occur as a result of a big storm are not caused by flooding or wind. The deaths occur after the storm has ended but if there are power outages. Carbon monoxide poisoning is one of the top killers as people turn to gas stoves to stay warm or use portable generators to power their refrigerators or air conditioners. “About 70 people die every year and many more are injured from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by portable generators,” the Consumer Product Safety Commission warns.
FPL said downed trees and debris in roads is making it difficult to reach certain locations to work on power restoration. Nonetheless, FPL stated it has the largest restoration workforce in U.S. history responding to the electric power outages.
The utility company has 30 staging sites, with restoration crews, trucks, and equipment from across the United States and Canada. Nearly 19,500 FPL employees and workers from other utilities and electrical contracting companies are working to restore power, mostly in the utility’s South Florida service territory.
FPL said its two nuclear power plants in South Florida — Turkey Point and St. Lucie — sustained no damage from Irma. The two nuclear plants have a strong record of weathering intense storms. The Turkey Point plant, located southwest of Miami, took a direct hit from Hurricane Andrew in 1992, a Category 5 storm, and sustained no damage, the company said. The St. Lucie nuclear plant took two direct hits weeks apart in 2004 from hurricanes Frances and Jeanne and also sustained no damage.