Best known for midway rides and music acts, the Florida Strawberry Festival Grounds are now playing host to more than 3,000 utility trucks from around the nation.
TECO is using the grounds as a staging area as it looks to restore power to hundreds of thousands in Hillsborough and Polk County. John Currier, the logistics coordinator for the storm, said as of Tuesday, 45 percent of TECO customers were without power. Statewide, estimates on Wednesday morning said 3.9 million homes and businesses remained without power, more than 37 percent of the 10.5 million electric accounts in Florida.
That's down about 2.8 million, though, from the peak outage reported by the state of more than 6.7 million accounts out as of 4:40 p.m. Monday -- 64.2 percent of the state.
Before Irma even made landfall crews from across the country including Michigan, Wisconsin and even Canada were headed south to aid in the recovery.
"We've been very proactive from day one," Currier said. "Florida can do a storm. We practice this all the time. We do mock drills and coordinate with our other utilities. I don't think we're missing a beat."
As teams arrive, they sign in, receive a briefing, a meal and, in some cases, given time to rest. Their trucks are refueled and then they are sent out to their assigned bases.
Currier said they are authorized to create 12 centers, though the most they've ever had to open were two centers in 2004 for Hurricane Charley. Thanks to Irma, six centers are being utilized by TECO to repair the immense damage.
The Florida Strawberry Festival Board was notified days ago their building, which was designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, would be needed, according to Sandee Sytsma, the chair of the board.
"We've always been used, but it's never been to this degree," Sytsma said. "Initially we thought there would be 1,800 trucks on site but now it's nearly doubled."
Sytsma, who previously worked for TECO for 20 years, said she is proud to see such a massive response from organizations all across the country and happy the Strawberry Festival could help. She said when they built Grimes Hall, where the responders are gathering at the festival grounds, they were debating whether to make it Category 5 resistant. Now she is relieved they went the extra mile.
Responders will work 16 hour shifts, day and night, until power is restored throughout the area. Currier said while the plan is extremely efficient, no recovery operation of this size has been done in Florida since Hurricane Donna in 1960. The obstacles are many and yet the determination is high.
"There's not enough gas in our state and we're really in need of hotel rooms, but our guys are ready to go to work," Currier said. "They want to get out there, they want to go. It's a culture for us, that desire to keep people with power. It's in our blood."
Jeff Piechocki, an employee of Michels Power, drove all night from Michigan to aid in recovery. He said the traffic in Florida, specifically at the turnoff at Orlando, was "horrid" and added hours to their journey. He said the trucks were running "on fumes" by the time they arrived in Plant City.
Luckily, diesel trucks are bringing fuel to the center to send crews out as quickly as possible. Currier said the goal is to restore power to nearly every client by the end of the week.
Residents need to be patient, Sytsma said, and trust the power company will do its job.
"We thought we were going to be homeless a few days ago and now we're just electricity-less," Sytsma said. "We need to get in perspective. If people weren't trying so hard you would have a reason to complain, but they're doing everything in their power. It's an inconvenience, it's no longer a disaster. Don't worry, the calvary is here."
Contact Breanne Williams at [email protected]