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After Irma, restoring power for millions won’t be easy. Here’s why

September 14, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
Crews across Florida work arduously to restore electricity for Hurricane Irma victims, as President Trump visited to survey the damage. William Brangham reports on the efforts to safeguard the most vulnerable in the face of power outages, then Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Marathon Vice Mayor Michelle Coldiron and Scott Aaronson of Edison Electric Institute.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: The hurricane headlines out of Florida tonight: new efforts to safeguard some of the state’s most vulnerable and a presidential visit.

William Brangham begins with this report.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: With new urgency, emergency workers moved more elderly residents out of Florida facilities that lost power, and air conditioning, in the hurricane. The state health care association estimated at least 60 nursing homes still lacked electricity.

The state’s main utility company said it’s doing everything it can.

BRYAN GARNER, Spokesman, Florida Power and Light: Getting hospitals and other critical facilities online is essential to getting a community back on its feet following a disaster like this one.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All of this after eight patients died Wednesday at a sweltering rehabilitation center in Hollywood, Florida, on the Atlantic Coast. City officials said a criminal investigation is still under way, and police executed a search warrant, but there’ve been no arrests.

WATCH: Fate of older Floridians brings urgency to Irma recovery

RAELIN STOREY, Spokeswoman, City of Hollywood, Florida: We’re looking into the temperature inside the facility, the staffing inside the facility, and all of the conditions inside the facility in the hours leading up to this situation.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: President Trump visited the state’s southwestern coast, where Hurricane Irma came ashore last weekend. He got a first-hand look at recovery efforts in Fort Myers and Naples.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The job that everybody has done in terms of first-responder and everybody has been incredible. And, by the way, that includes the people that live here because you see the people immediately getting back to work to fix up their homes.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Mr. Trump also spoke of his well-known fondness for Florida. He has an estate in Palm Beach.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are there for you 100 percent. I will be back here numerous times. I mean, this is a state that I know very well, as you understand. And these are special, special people and we love them.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The president was joined by first lady Melania Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. Together, they helped hand out food and water to storm victims in a mobile home park.

To the south, parts of the Florida Keys remained inaccessible, but more reports emerged of extensive property damage.

LARRY CUMISKEY, Keys Resident: We were in a big house on the ocean which we thought was going to be safe because it was three stories. And the house basically caved in. I mean, we barely made it.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Meanwhile, the U.S. Virgin Islands are also in desperate need after being blasted by Irma, when the storm was at full strength.

People on St. John and St. Thomas have been living off military food rations distributed by U.S. Marines and the National Guard.

WILLIAM MILLS, U.S. Virgin Islands Resident: It’s not enough, but it’s better than nothing at all. You know, it’s something that you can eat for the day. You know, it keeps you sustained for the day if you don’t have much. Much of the stores aren’t still open.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: A Royal Caribbean cruise ship brought more than 500 evacuees into Puerto Rico today. It’s loading up supplies to take to French St. Martin tonight.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m William Brangham.

HARI SREENIVASAN: As we heard, the Florida Keys are still reeling from a devastating hit. They’re largely inaccessible and conditions remain very difficult.

To get a sense of what communities are dealing with, I spoke by phone this afternoon with the vice mayor of Marathon, Florida, Michelle Coldiron, and asked her how her city was doing.

VICE MAYOR MICHELLE COLDIRON, Marathon, Florida: We received a lot of damage. We currently do not have our electric on. We do not have water services. We do not have cell services. We don’t have Internet connections.

So it is pretty sketchy right now. However, we do have a very collaborative, structured team on the ground. They’re working in collaboration with Monroe County. We have a well-trained recovery effort in progress as we speak.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What are your greatest needs right now?

VICE MAYOR MICHELLE COLDIRON: Right now, our greatest needs are food, fuel, and water. Our Marathon Airport has been cleared so that official planes can arrive. They are coming in. We have C-130s that are arriving with the needs our city is requiring to rebuild. We have the Florida Department of Transportation is working tirelessly.

The electric company is working, first-responders. So we really are doing our best to get our city back open again.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Are residents being allowed back in?

VICE MAYOR MICHELLE COLDIRON: No, sir, they are not yet. It is still too unsafe for them to come back in.

Currently, we have, as you know, the Florida Keys, we have one road in and one road out. We had to do a cut-and-clear to get all of US-1 Highway open. Then the Florida Department of Transportation had to check the integrity of all of those bridges. They’re all cleared and are passable.

Now our crews on the ground, our city staff, Marathon city staff and the utility department are going street by street to do the search-and-rescue and to continue with the cut-and-clears. So until that is finished and until we get our electric and until we get our water running, i.e., toilets to flush, it will not be safe for our residents to return.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We have heard some are angry trying to get back in. What would you tell people who are probably anxious, homeowners, business owners?

VICE MAYOR MICHELLE COLDIRON: And I understand that anxiety level, as I too am off-site. And it is very frustrating, and it’s heart-wrenching.

However, we need to let the 2,000 volunteers that are professional volunteers, the lines men, the first-responders, we need them there so that they can get our city safe to open up again. We currently — our hospital is not open right now. So if all of our residents came back in and somebody got hurt, there would be no way for them to get medical services.

Even though we have set up a walk-in clinic behind Marathon City Hall, it is still too soon. It’s four days. We need to put it in perspective. We’re four days out of a catastrophe, and we’re doing a remarkable job.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The folks who decided to ride out the storm, when you say there’s no food, fuel or power, what’s the condition of people in the shelters on the ground?

VICE MAYOR MICHELLE COLDIRON: They’re doing all right.

We have had some food delivery. We had — FEMA is on the ground now. Red Cross is on the ground now. We have a shelter set up. And we’re doing distribution of food and water at the Marathon High School is one of the stations.

We do have a base camp set up in Marathon. So there is some fuel and water. It’s just that is what is in high demand for all of the professional staff and folks that are there working on the ground.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Michelle Coldiron, thanks for joining us.

VICE MAYOR MICHELLE COLDIRON: Thank you so much. Appreciate the call.

HARI SREENIVASAN: As we heard, there are still millions of people without power in Florida and Georgia, close to six million as of this evening.

The pace of restoring power has undoubtedly been picking up speed. But it’s a difficult situation, given the magnitude of the outages.

To help us understand the scope of the challenges, we’re joined by Scott Aaronson of the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities.

I have covered a few hurricanes, and never seen a rollout this big with, this many different agencies, this many volunteers. How’s it going?

SCOTT AARONSON, Edison Electric Institute: That’s exactly right.

It is a huge rollout. It was an historic storm, as you’re seeing from all of the footage. It’s historic impact, and it’s requiring a historic response.

So, I want to update the number. You said close to six million outages. We’re actually right now, as of just about an hour ago, 2.1 million outages still in Florida.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, are those customers or people?

SCOTT AARONSON: So, those are customers.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK.

SCOTT AARONSON: And so a little bit more on the people side, but, to say the least, we started with 7.8 million outages just three days ago. We’re at 2.1 million now. You see the pace of progress is really picking up.

HARI SREENIVASAN: I often realize that the last 5 percent, 10 percent are the hardest ones to get to. Are there dates, are there goals that you have on when everybody in this region is going to have their power back on?

SCOTT AARONSON: So, the estimated times of restoration, yes, in the less hard-hit areas, we’re looking for most people by the end of this weekend at the latest.

By the really hard-hit areas, you’re talking about places that had flooding, catastrophic flooding, places that hard tornadoes, maybe toward the end of next week. But, again, 60,000 workers from all over North America are descending on the affected area to respond to this historic storm.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Give us an idea of the complexity here. We saw in some pictures that it’s not just about getting the person there, that there is sort of a tangled web of things that have to happen in order for the light to come back on.

SCOTT AARONSON: That’s exactly right.

It’s an interconnected system. There’s a lot of things that have to happen, sort of gating items, if you will. First, we have to make sure that generation is on, up and running. Fortunately, with this storm, that wasn’t an issue.

But then we go for the biggest swathe that we can possibly get. And that’s going to be the transmission system, the interstate highway system of the electric grid, if you will.

And then from there, you get into the neighborhoods. And that’s where sort of the onesies, twosies that are going to take a little bit more time to get to.

But because of the way that companies practice this and because of just the absolutely monumental effort from all across North America to come support the companies in Florida and Georgia, by the way, we’re seeing that pace quicken.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What are the areas that are going to be hardest to get to? Is it the edge of the Keys, where this vice mayor was talking to us from?

SCOTT AARONSON: I think that’s right.

I think you’re going to see some of those barrier islands, some of the Keys, some of those places that were hit by tornadoes, some of those places that were hit by catastrophic flooding. There is going to be an instance where a customer simply can’t take power because their homes have been damaged too much.

And so we’re seeing that in the restoration from Hurricane Harvey over in Houston as well, so much flooding, we’re going to have the wait until those homes can actually accept electricity.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And it doesn’t also just seem like it’s just about the power poles. It seems like a lot of these trucks, the debris needs to be cleared before they can even get there safely.

SCOTT AARONSON: In this particular case with Florida, Mother Nature had not done a house-cleaning in Florida in about a decade. And we are seeing a lot of vegetation on the ground.

In the business, it’s known as vegetation management. And so what we’re doing actually was one of the impressive things about this particular restoration. There was a need for more veg management folks, as they’re known in the business. And we were able to bring them into the affected area, get more of them, so we can start clearing that debris and then ultimately restore the power.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Scott Aaronson of the Edison Electric Institute, thanks for joining us.

SCOTT AARONSON: Thanks so much for having me.

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