BONITA SPRINGS, Florida (AP) — Nearly a week after Hurricane Ian smashed into Florida and carved a path of destruction that reached into the Carolinas, hundreds of thousands of Florida residents faced another day without electricity Tuesday as rescuers continued their search for those trapped inside homes inundated with lingering floodwaters.
At least 78 people have been confirmed dead from the storm: 71 in Florida, four in North Carolina and three in Cuba since Ian made landfall on the Caribbean island on September 27, and in Florida a day later.
The number of storm-related deaths has risen in recent days amid ongoing search and rescue efforts in Florida, and could continue to increase as more searches take place in the hardest-hit areas. Florida officials said that as of Monday more than 1,900 people have been rescued statewide.
But for many Florida residents, power restoration has become job one.
In the town of Naples, Kelly Sedgwick was just seeing news images Monday of the devastation Ian had caused, thanks to power that was restored four days after the hurricane slammed into her southwestern Florida community. Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Bonita Springs, Catalina Mejilla was still using a borrowed generator to try to keep her kids and their grandfather cool as they waited for their power to be returned.
Ian knocked out power to 2.6 million customers across Florida when it roared ashore with 150 mph (241 kph) winds and pushed a powerful storm surge.
Since then, crews have been feverishly working to restore electricity infrastructure. State officials said they expect power to be restored by Sunday to customers whose power lines and other electric infrastructure is still intact.
About 430,000 homes and businesses in Florida were still without electricity early Tuesday.
For those who were getting power restored, it was a blessing. Sedgwick said she was "relieved" to have her power back and praised the crews for their hard work: "They've done a remarkable job."
But for those who were still waiting, it was a difficult slog.
"The heat is unbearable," Mejilla said. "When there's no power ... we can't make food, we don't have gas." Her mother has trouble breathing and had to go to a friend's house who had electricity. "I think they should give power to the people who are most in need."
Eric Silagy, Chairman and CEO of Florida Power & Light — the largest power provider in the state — said he understands the frustrations and said crews are working as hard as they can to restore power as soon as possible. The utility expects to have power restored to 95 per cent of its service areas by the end of the day Friday, he said.
A utility spokesperson said the remaining five per cent comprises mostly cases where there's a special situation making it difficult to restore power, such as the home being so damaged it can't receive power or the area still being flooded. Those outages do not include customers whose homes or businesses were destroyed.
Another major electricity provider in the hard-hit coastal region — Lee County Electric Cooperative — said Monday it expects to hit the 95 per cent mark by the end of Saturday. That figure does not include barrier islands like Sanibel that are in its service area.
Power restoration is always a key challenge after major hurricanes when high winds and flying debris can topple power lines that distribute electricity to homes or in more severe storms, damage major parts of the electric infrastructure such as transmission lines or power generation.