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Florida Faces Enormous Task Of Restoring Power After Hurricane Irma


Hurricane Irma has left millions of people without power, 3 and a half million people in Florida alone. Utility crews are working hard to get power back, and that means sending thousands of line workers out on the streets to restring wires between poles.

JOE SUAREZ: It has this level of danger. But it's very personal, and it's about bringing normality again back to your family, your friends and neighbors, the neighborhood, the community.

MCEVERS: Joe Suarez has been with Florida Power & Light for 36 years. He was a line worker when Hurricane Andrew hit south Florida 25 years ago. And I asked him how the damage from Irma compares to that storm.

SUAREZ: Andrew wiped out most of our poles, leveled homes, removed homes right from their foundation. You could not tell where you were from - street signs were down. Poles were gone. Feeders and lines that we were accustomed to seeing were no longer there.


SUAREZ: So it was a pure reconstruction, setting poles and rebuilding a grid. What we're experiencing with Irma is that the infrastructure is still there. Yes, we do have outages. We cannot prevent a tree from falling into our lines. We cannot prevent flying debris. But what we're finding is the poles are there. So now we're just reconnecting wires and not having to rebuild a grid, a whole...


SUAREZ: ...System with poles and everything that it would take to start from scratch.

MCEVERS: What's the biggest challenge now then in terms of just getting power back to everyone a hundred percent?

SUAREZ: So it's just the wide spread of the impact. The - our whole service territory - 27,000 square miles of our service territory has been impacted. And so it's just being able to get out there and do the inspections that our job requires. Some of it's easy to fix, and some of it's more complex. And it's going to require a little more time. We're still continuing to assess and understand the total impact of it.

MCEVERS: And Florida Power & Light has more than 19,000 workers out there on - I mean working on this right now. Is that correct?

SUAREZ: Yes. So we have - we're up to 21,000 workers.


SUAREZ: It's a Herculean effort. It's a small army, if you will.

MCEVERS: And you've got workers coming from other places - right? - to help out right now, other states.

SUAREZ: Yes, yes, absolutely. We have companies here from Texas. We have them from the northeast. We have 30 states that are providing some level of support through their utilities or electrical contractors. So we have a nice blend of support from the majority of the U.S. And so it's a huge task. But most of the people that come to support us - they've all lived this kind of - you know, one, they're in the industry. They're in the business.

They - we have a mutual assistance program where states help each other. Utilities help each other. And so whenever we're in need, they come and help us. Whenever they're in need, we go help them. So we understand what it takes to do this. And you know, it's a humbling business. You know, just when you think everything is going good and you're doing a lot of great things to improve your grid, you know, something like this will come along and causes you to reflect on...

MCEVERS: Yeah, you have to go back, like, several squares, right?

SUAREZ: Yeah, yes.

MCEVERS: Maybe not to square one, but it's, like...


MCEVERS: We've heard reports that Florida Power & Light expects power to be pretty much fully restored by the weekend. Do you think that's likely?

SUAREZ: We feel very confident that on the east coast of Florida we're going to have the majority of our customers back on. The west coast, we had some severe pockets of damage, and so our - we're targeting September 22 as our date. We feel pretty confident that by the 22nd we'll be complete.

For us, one of the aspects of normality is when schools start to open and kids can return to school because that helps the community. It helps parents know that, you know, they can focus on other things. And so as we start to open up schools, the linemen really feel like, wow, we're really making an impact because now we're talking about the impact of family and friends.

MCEVERS: Joe Suarez is a former line worker. He is now director of Fleet Services for Florida Power & Light. Thanks so much for your time. We appreciate it.

SUAREZ: Thank you, Kelly.

MCEVERS: And for your work.

SUAREZ: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINIATURE TIGERS' "GOLDSKULL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.