Tony Feller, who stayed in Mexico Beach, Fla., during Hurricane Michael, sits in a chair amid the destruction on Oct. 11.
Florida utilities were scrambling to restore power after Hurricane Michael but encountered blocked roads and obliterated infrastructure that Duke Energy Florida LLC said in many instances will need to be completely rebuilt — an effort that could take months, according to company officials.
Meanwhile, more than a million electricity customers in six states were still without power as night approached on Oct. 12, the second full day after Michael made landfall with 155 mph gusts, just 2 mph shy of a Category 5 classification. The storm was the fourth-strongest hurricane in U.S. history since 1851.
Duke Energy Florida, which has 1.8 million accounts in the state's panhandle and central regions, initially predicted that Michael could cause 100,000 to 200,000 outages in its service territory. Duke's outage map showed about 26,000 customers without service in the early evening of Oct. 12, but the utility's storm director, Jason Cutliffe, said he does not yet know what the actual blackout figure is, which could be significantly higher. The status of several counties was listed as "assessing damage."
The utility, a Duke Energy Corp. subsidiary, is still developing restoration times for its most affected areas, Cutliffe said. The one thing he and Duke Energy Florida President Catherine Stempien do know for sure, however, was the scope of destruction and the time and effort it will take to tackle it all.
"The damage was, I'd put it, concentrated and devastating," Stempien said on a conference call with reporters. "The damage is not widespread throughout the state, but the portions of the state that have been damaged, it's been catastrophic. We will need to be rebuilding significant portions of that system."
Stempien catalogued damage to "numerous" facilities, including transmission towers, substations, distribution poles, power lines and other system components, "all of which need to be repaired or in some cases completely replaced before we can restore service."
A utility pole in Duke Energy Florida's service territory.
Cutliffe classified it as "hundreds" of broken poles, "miles" of downed lines and even "toppled" transmission towers. "We've seen areas where entire pole lines have been snapped off and are on the ground," he said. "Where there has been structural damage to the buildings being served and the communities that have been devastated, that rebuild effort will go on for months."
Hampering restoration is a conflux of two factors, Cutliffe said: too much debris and too many workers. Entire roads are completely inaccessible due to felled trees and wreckage piles, along with roads themselves being ripped apart. That lack of access to certain sites, along with over 2,400 linemen shuttling around, has led to "a point of saturation that begins to create unsafe conditions," he said.
That, along with the fact that Duke Energy utilities in North and South Carolina were also hit by Michael, means a resource pool and supply chain that are spread thin, Cutliffe said, as all three subsidiaries have to share assets.
In an attempt to address these issues, Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced on Oct. 12 that Duke Energy Florida, Southern Co. subsidiary Gulf Power Co., Gulf Coast Electric, West Florida Electric and PowerSouth Energy Cooperative have accepted assistance from 130 state-run "push crews" to clear roads in advance of utility workers.
Nevertheless, Duke has experienced some successes. Stempien detailed how important transmission poles on St. George Island, one of the first areas affected by Michael, were replaced several years ago, and that infrastructure survived the hurricane's winds. "I'm really proud" of that, she said.
Overall, according to the Florida Public Service Commission, those entities and other electric providers suffered over 400,000 peak outages, with that figure at almost 269,000 in the evening of Oct. 12, according to outage aggregator PowerOutage.us.
Outages beyond Florida
Even after being downgraded to a tropical storm, the Michael weather system wreaked havoc on the Carolinas and Virginia, causing a combined 1.2 million peak outages and killing at least eight people in those states.
The storm hit heavily populated areas of North Carolina and Virginia during the evening and night of Oct. 11, prompting at least 500,000 outages in the Tar Heel State and as many as 565,000 blackouts in the Old Dominion State. Virginia was also struck by five tornadoes, exacerbating storm conditions that resulted in a "wide swath" of flooding and debris, Gov. Ralph Northam said.
Michael blew at 50 mph in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina at 5 p.m. ET on Oct. 11, according to the National Hurricane Center, before continuing northeast and passing just left of the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area in southeastern Virginia at 11 p.m. ET. Federal forecasters tracked Michael in the Atlantic Ocean at 2 a.m. ET on Oct. 12 before it was downgraded to a tropical depression at 5 a.m. ET.
"Tropical Storm Michael drifted away from North Carolina last night, but it left behind a long track of damage," Gov. Roy Cooper said at a morning press conference on Oct. 12. "Today our state begins recovering from yet another storm." North and South Carolina were devastated by the slow-moving Hurricane Florence just a month earlier, in September.
Workers inspect a fallen pole in Virginia.
Cooper reported nearly 500,000 homes and businesses without power the morning of Oct. 12, though that figure was down to almost 309,000 after 6:30 p.m. ET. The Outer Banks region experienced wind gusts up to 70 mph, with some counties seeing 10 inches of rain. Most flash floods receded overnight, he said, but some rivers were still rising and cresting. Those waterways are not expected to cause much damage, Cooper added.
The governor described "many fallen trees that need to be removed." Jim Trogdon, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Transportation, said crews worked overnight to clear some of them, with "substantial progress" anticipated going forward.
In Virginia, Dominion Energy Inc. Senior Vice President of Electric Distribution Ed Baine said almost 600,000 of its customers have been affected by Michael, the vast majority of which are projected to be restored by the end of Oct. 15. Winds in the state topped 75 mph, he said with significant damage from downed trees and wires. Over 320,000 Virginians were still without power as of 6:30 p.m. ET on Oct. 12, according to PowerOutage.us.
Despite many U.S. utilities installing smart meters over the years, Baine still called on customers to report outages to Dominion. "Don't assume that we know," he said.