With no power or A/C, some people still feeling Frances
Crews from far and near work to restore electricity to places like nursing homes.
HOBE SOUND, FLA — . - Of the 2.8 million Florida customers who lost power during hurricane Frances last weekend, more than 2 million have already gotten their power back.
"This is more than double the number of customers restored within 14 days after Hurricane Charley," boast Florida Power & Light (FPL) officials in a press release.
But while such statistics sound impressive, they have little meaning for Dan Samartino. Mr. Samartino resides in a Hobe Sound nursing home that has been without power (and air conditioning) since electricity was knocked out by hurricane Frances last weekend.
Such statistics also mean little to Martin County water and sewer officials who are scrambling around the clock to keep the county's sewage system from overflowing. Of 250 pumping stations, roughly 150 are shut down for lack of power. To prevent the system from backing up, officials are shuttling portable gas-powered generators from one blacked-out pumping station to another.
Although the winds of hurricane Frances diminished days ago, the storm's lingering impact is everywhere on display with damaged structures, downed trees, and swamped boats. But the most widely shared disruption is the loss of electricity.
In a state with a large population of senior citizens, widespread power outages involve more than just spoiled food in a refrigerator and missed opportunities to watch favorite TV. For elderly residents it can pose a significant threat.
In September, it is not uncommon for daytime temperatures in Florida to reach into the 90s with high humidity.
In Martin County, Health Department officials discovered this week that only one of the county's 11 nursing homes was operating with fully restored power. A few were equipped with generators large enough to operate their air conditioning systems. Some had generators able to provide a limited level of power but not enough to cool the residents. Two nursing homes were operating with no power.
"The Health Department has gone to nursing homes and done an environmental assessment," says Jackie Williams of the Martin County Emergency Operations Center. "They are specifically concerned about heat."
At the Manors at Hobe Sound nursing home on US 1, windows were open, as was the front door, in an attempt to catch a breeze. Some residents confined to beds had been rolled out into a central hallway.
"I don't think it's so comfortable," said Rose Samartino after visiting her husband, Dan. "They have some patients out in the hall - some who are in bad shape."
But as she speaks, help is apparently on the way. A large tractor-trailer is parked in front of the building carrying a generator large enough to restore the nursing home's air-conditioning system.
A few miles away at the Stuart Nursing Home on Palm Beach Road, officials declined a request for information about whether they were planning to take steps to provide their residents with air conditioning. A receptionist said officials were unable to discuss the situation.
The air-conditioning issue isn't confined just to nursing homes in Martin County. Senior citizens living on their own - some in buildings with windows that do not open - are struggling throughout the state. Some are banding together to help one another, but it remains unclear how many others are suffering in silence.
Florida power officials say it is not feasible to give priority to nursing homes or vulnerable senior citizens. Under current restoration plans, priority is given to hospitals, police and fire stations, transportation needs, and water and sewer facilities.
"Those are the essential customers," says Kathy Scott, an FPL spokeswoman. After they are back in service, the priority is to make repairs that restore the most customers per repair, she says.
"It is not a matter of when a customer called or how long the service has been out," Ms. Scott says.
In following this plan, Florida has become the site of one of the largest power restoration efforts ever undertaken. Reinforcements of 6,000 workers from 38 out-of-state utility companies have rolled down I-95 and I-75 in long convoys of power and tree- trimming trucks.
The power crews are operating out of six staging areas positioned along Florida's east coast. One is at the Florida State Fairgrounds near West Palm Beach.
The scene resembles a massive military invasion. The work crews park their trucks in long lines each evening to eat dinner in an air-conditioned chow tent. Then they are bused to various hotels and motels for six to seven hours of sleep. Until power is restored, most crews will work 16-hour days.
"Every one of these guys is like a big family, building this power line," says Chris Nicholas of Little Rock, Ark. "We'll be here until all the lights are on."
Joseph Duda of Fairmont, W.Va., says he worked for 19 days restoring power in southwest Florida after hurricane Charley. Then he went home for some rest. But two days later, Frances hit, and he was back in his truck headed for Florida.
Mr. Duda, whose crew is working in Palm Beach County, says he's already noticed a big difference between residents in this section of Florida versus the west coast.
"I don't think I got asked one time [by a west coast resident] how much longer will the power be off," Duda says. "But today I must have been asked it 50 times."
Duda spent nearly three weeks working on the west coast. He made his comment after completing his first day of work in Palm Beach County.