More than 2.5 million electricity customers in Florida were without power early Sept. 29 as Hurricane Ian wreaked havoc on the state’s power grid and continued to cause damage with high winds and heavy rain, even after being downgraded to a tropical storm early Thursday.
The storm, which made landfall in southwest Florida on Wednesday afternoon as a Category 4 hurricane, could go down as the most costly in the state’s history, as it tracked from the Fort Myers area across the state, through Orlando and to Jacksonville on the east coast. Storm experts said Ian, with its maximum sustained winds of 150 mph at landfall, its tied for the fifth on the list of the most-powerful hurricanes to hit the U.S.
Ian also is the sixth Category 4 or 5 storm to hit the Gulf Coast in the past seven years. The storm is expected to re-intensify as it heads north from Florida, and it already was upgraded from a tropical storm to a Category 1 hurricane Thursday afternoon, with states of emergency declared in several states along the U.S. East Coast.
Power Grid ‘Will Need to Be Rebuilt’
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in an update Thursday morning said the power grid in Lee and Charlotte counties in southwest Florida “likely will need to be rebuilt,” with those areas “off the grid.” Michael Chitwood, sheriff of Volusia County, which includes Daytona Beach on the state’s east coast, on Thursday said parts of that county had received as much as 30 inches of rain, with precipitation still falling.
The Orlando area reported more than 14 inches of rain, with more expected today.
Officials said it appeared all electricity customers in several counties, including Charlotte, DeSoto, Hard and Lee, were without power Thursday. At least half the customers in several neighboring counties, including Collier, Glades, Highlands, Manatee and Sarasota, also had no power.
The storm came ashore near the island of Cayo Costa, off the coast of Fort Myers, just after 3 p.m Eastern time Wednesday. Charlotte County Commissioner Chris Constance said there were at least six storm-related deaths in that county, with door-to-door search-and-rescue efforts continuing. Authorities also confirmed that a 72-year-old man in Deltona, in Volusia County, drowned while attempting to drain water from his pool.
Record Storm Surge
DeSantis noted that storm surge caused much of the damage from the storm. “Overwhelmingly it’s been that surge that’s been the biggest issue and the flooding … as a result,” he said. “In some areas, we think it’s hit 12 feet.” Other officials said storm surge in some areas of southwest Florida may have been as high as 18 feet.
A fire station in Naples was inundated with more than three feet of floodwater. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association reported a storm surge of 7.26 feet at its peak in Fort Myers, a record for the area.
Ian’s impacts are expected to continue for days as the storm moves into Georgia and South Carolina with heavy rain.
Thousands of utility workers from across the U.S. had moved into Florida prior to the storm, staging at several areas—including Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, home to the Tampa Bay Rays major-league baseball team—to quickly begin power restoration efforts. Work to restore power is expected to take days to weeks, particularly in hardest-hit southwest Florida.
Power Restoration Could Take Weeks
Officials said as many as 33,000 utility workers from outside Florida had come to the state to help with power restoration.
Ian already had caused major damage in Cuba prior to entering the Gulf of Mexico, leaving the entire island without power earlier this week.
Archie Collins, CEO of Tampa Electric, on Tuesday had issued a statement that said in part, “I encourage our customers to prepare for extended power outages. Please stay safe.” Eric Silagy, chief executive for Florida Power & Light (FPL), the state’s largest utility, had told customers to “prepare for outages that will be for an extended period of time,” stating “there is no such thing as a hurricane-proof power grid.”
Duke Energy earlier this week said it had mobilized about 10,000 lineworkers, along with damage assessment and support personnel, to locations in its Florida service territory. FPL has said it has a restoration force of about 16,000 workers, includes mutual assistance crews from 27 states.
This story will be updated.
—Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).