'It’s not so bad because the weather's been nice': Crews restore power for most in Polk County

LAKELAND — Arlene Hughes and her husband, Ricky, had engaged in running speculation since last Wednesday on when electricity would return to their house on West Palm Drive.

“My husband and I were taking bets — like, ‘What do you think?’” Hughes said with a chuckle. “I was like, ‘Maybe by Halloween.’”

Their wait ended Tuesday morning when a convoy of trucks bringing workers from Lakeland Electric and utilities in Tennessee arrived on Bristol Avenue to repair damaged equipment supplying power to a small pocket of houses in the Southwest section of Lakeland.

T.J. Guardado, a lineman for Lakeland Electric, guides an easement rig onto his truck Tuesday morning after he and visiting workers used it to make repairs to damaged power equipment in a yard on Bristol Avenue.
T.J. Guardado, a lineman for Lakeland Electric, guides an easement rig onto his truck Tuesday morning after he and visiting workers used it to make repairs to damaged power equipment in a yard on Bristol Avenue.

Hughes said she and her husband had been continuously checking the Lakeland Electric website for a display of remaining power outages. She guessed that they would be among the last 200 customers to have electricity restored, while Ricky wagered that they would be in the final 500.

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Ricky won that one, as their power returned about 8:15 a.m. Tuesday while Lakeland Electric listed nearly 1,100 customers as still lacking power.

“You’ve got to make a game of it to keep your sanity,” Hughes said.

Lakeland Electric crews were supplemented by workers from seven other states

Lakeland Electric crews, supplemented by workers from seven other states and other municipalities in Florida, have been toiling to repair damages to equipment since last week, when Hurricane Ian passed through with top winds of 78 mph in the Lakeland area.

After concentrating first on repairs that would return power to large clusters of residences and businesses, by Tuesday the crews were addressing problems that in some cases affected only a few houses.

As of 2 p.m. Tuesday, Lakeland Electric reported that 165 outages remained, affecting 768 customers. The city-owned utility, which serves more than 133,000 customers, had initially reported that more than 53,000 were left without power soon after Hurricane Ian struck.

Lakeland Electric expected to have all power restored Tuesday, except in cases where it was unsafe to do so or in cases of damage to equipment on a home that was the owner’s responsibility to have repaired, spokesperson Cathryn Lacy said. The utility offers descriptions on its website, www.lakelandelectric.com, showing which electrical structures a homeowner must have repaired by calling an electrician.

Once that is done, a customer may call Lakeland Electric to have service restored, Lacy said.

“There's nothing worse than us coming up to your house to restore power and then you find out you need to get an electrician, so we're trying our best to educate people,” Lacy said.

A line of trucks is parked along Bristol Avenue on Tuesday morning as crews restore power to some of the final houses still affected by outages from Hurricane Ian.
A line of trucks is parked along Bristol Avenue on Tuesday morning as crews restore power to some of the final houses still affected by outages from Hurricane Ian.

Mutual Aid

As a municipal-owned utility, Lakeland Electric participates in a mutual-aid agreement with other utilities in Florida and other states. The utility has drawn assistance from more than 300 workers, some of them traveling from Alabama, Louisiana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, Lacy said. Those include tree trimmers, line crew workers and machine operators.

Overall, more than 450 workers from other utilities have been working to support local crews in Lakeland, Bartow and Fort Meade, according to Nicole Albers, a spokesperson for the Florida Municipal Electric Association.

Lakeland Electric is required to pay the salaries of the visiting workers, but the utility can apply to be reimbursed from the Federal Emergency Management Association, Lacy said. Lakeland Electric has an agreement with the Detroit Tigers to have the outside crews lodge at TigerTown, where they sleep in team dormitories and receive meals, Lacy said.

“It becomes an all-in-one stop for our crews,” Lacy said. “So they can safely park their bucket trucks, their equipment. They can get fuel there. They can get their water and their ice there. They can go check into the dormitories, eat there. So it makes it a lot faster when we need to roll out in the morning to get them to the job sites. You don't have to go to multiple locations to get that done, which means that we can spend more time out working, restoring power for our customers.”

The crews have been working from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. each day since last Thursday. Lacy said that working through the night could put crews in dangerous situations, dealing with potential live wires in darkness, and would lead to exhaustion.

The convoy parked along Bristol Avenue on Tuesday morning included six trucks from the Cookeville (Tennessee) Electrical Department and two from Tullahoma Utilities Authority in Tennessee. The crew unloaded an easement rig — a compact device with tank-like tracks, a boring drill and an extendable arm bearing a large metal claw — and wheeled it into a back yard to strengthen a damaged power pole and fix a blown transformer.

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Crews: 'They’ve been very welcoming'

By 9 a.m., the crew had restored power to all but four houses at the south end of Bristol Avenue. With the final repair on the street finished, Lakeland Electric lineman T.J. Guardado steered the easement rig back onto his truck.

“They’re about to make it hot,” Guardado said, referring to switching the power back on.

Wil Dunson, a lineman, was among the workers from the Cookeville Electrical Department. Dunson said he had had some exchanges with local residents while in the area.

“They’ve been very welcoming,” he said. “They seem very appreciative.”

James Jones briefly watched the crew’s progress from his house on the east side of Bristol Avenue. He said he and others on that side of the street had regain power the day after it went out, while those on the west side of Bristol remained in the dark until Tuesday morning.

“It’s weird because usually ours is the last and theirs never went out,” Jones said. “Irma was two weeks, just about two and a half weeks, before the power came back on here.”

Jones said some neighbors on the west side of Bristol had left to stay with relatives until electricity was restored. But Arlene Hughes, at the corner of Bristol and Palm Drive, said she and her husband had been “living off the grid” for the past six days, without even a portable generator to supply any electricity.

“It’s not so bad because the weather's been nice,” she said. “So it wasn't like Charlie (a 2004 hurricane), when it was so stinking hot. I was living in Babson Park at that time. But now the weather's been good, and then my son got power on Saturday. He lives here in town, so I could use his hot water heater.”

Hughes said her husband hails from the Miami area, and his relatives had endured the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

“I will tell you this, and I will try not to cry,” Hughes said, as her voice began to break. “This is nothing compared to what other people are gone through. So if I get inconvenienced for five or six days, it's OK.”

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Most service restored

Elsewhere in Polk County, Haines City Mayor Anne Huffman said some residents still didn’t have electricity as of Monday evening. Duke Energy, which supplies power to the entire city, had fully restored power lost during Hurricane Ian as of Tuesday afternoon, spokesperson Audrey Stasko said.

An outage map on Duke’s website showed 15 Haines City customers without power, but Stasko said those losses had just been reported Tuesday and didn’t appear related to the hurricane.

Huffman said Hurricane Ian mainly inflicted wind damage in Haines City and not the flooding that has plagued other local cities, such as Bartow and Fort Meade. She said she participated in a Zoom call Tuesday that included U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, whose district includes Haines City.

Huffman said she asked for Soto’s help in obtaining tarpaulins to cover damaged roofs. She also asked about emergency food vouchers for residents who had been forced to discard the contents of their refrigerators after losing power.

The mayor said she would like to see FEMA install a representative in the Haines City area to address the needs of residents not just in her city but in the fast-growing Davenport area.

Tampa Electric announced Tuesday that it had restored power to “essentially all customers” in the Tampa Bay area who are able to receive it.

“Some customers who are affected by other factors, such as flooding or damage to their home’s electrical equipment, may not be able to safely receive electricity,” a TECO statement said. “For a handful of customers with more complex damage, it will take additional time to restore. Tampa Electric will work with these customers until their issues are resolved.”

TECO serves about 90,000 people in Polk County, with customers in Winter Haven, Auburndale, Eagle Lake, Lake Alfred, Polk City and Mulberry.

Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Power returns for most in Polk County after Hurricane Ian