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Power loss tests patience, stretches utility crews thin

(ran LT edition of NATIONAL)

Over half a million Tampa Bay-area homes and businesses still remained without power Monday as electric utilities scrambled to find workers from around the country to help with repairs.

Across Florida, 1.9-million customers had no power Monday after Hurricane Jeanne lashed the state, including 214,972 in Pinellas, 167,003 in Hillsborough and 90,844 in Pasco.

Few estimates are available on when power will be back, although in the Tampa Bay area, it is expected to be a matter of days and not weeks.

"People are getting cranky," said Tampa Electric Co. spokesman Ross Bannister. "If we could bring the power back on by snapping our fingers, we would do it in a second. This is bothersome. It's a pain. It's a nuisance. It's expensive. There's nothing we want more than people to have electricity."

The good news: The peak outage in Tampa Bay area was at least 648,000. So many people have had their power restored and more were expected today.

With four hurricanes in six weeks hitting Florida, utility officials said the biggest challenge is finding enough workers to make repairs, especially with so many still in the Panhandle restoring power from Hurricane Ivan.

Florida Power & Light, the state's largest electric utility, said it had 8,000 repair workers out across Florida after Hurricane Frances. But so far after Jeanne, it had only been able to mobilize 3,100.

"We continue to make appeals nationwide" to find workers, said Armando Olivera, president of FP&L. "Hopefully, we'll get additional resources in the next 24 to 48 hours."

The same is true at Progress, which is flying in workers from as far away as California and Montana.

John Ramil, president of TECO Energy, said repairs will take longer than with previous storms because Jeanne wreaked more havoc on the utility's infrastructure.

"But this time we have less help," he said.

Three hundred linemen and tree trimmers drove in Monday from Arkansas and Mississippi, and Ramil hopes to have another 1,500 here by later this week.

Many utility workers are exhausted.

"Some of these folks have been chasing storms and doing restoration work for upwards of 40 days without seeing their own families," said Barry Bowman, spokesman for the Sumter Electric Cooperative, which serves customers in Citrus, Pasco and Hernando counties.

Said Progress Energy spokesman Keith Poston: "People are just whipped."

Many people are enduring a lengthy power loss for the second time. With downed trees and limbs the most-common cause of damage, some residents question if utilities do enough to trim trees in anticipation of a storm.

Utilities officials said homeowners are responsible for reporting trees or limbs interferring with power lines and to not plant trees that may eventually grow into those lines.

But Nathan Snyder said he and his mother, who owns a house in St. Petersburg, have done exactly that, warning city, phone and power company officials for the last 15 years about four or five Australian pines on the easement next to their property.

"We knew it was going to be a problem when we saw Jeanne coming," Snyder said after one of the trees knocked out a power line. "I was talking to some of the Progress Energy linemen and they said the company doesn't want to spend the money to trim the trees."

Duane and Donna Royer of Oldsmar said the electrical wiring at the corner of their Shore Drive property is too close to tree branches for comfort.

"I talked to TECO, they said they won't do it," said Donna Royer, 52. "I even talked to the mayor, but he said the city doesn't do it."

Progress, TECO and other regional utilities said they do everything they can to trim trees, spending millions to keep crews out throughout the year to cut trees.

Most utilities trim trees near power lines on a cycle, covering trees near all power lines every three or four years. All Tampa Bay area utilities said they respond to complaints from customers concerned about trees interferring with power lines.

"But when you're dealing with extreme natural phenomenon like hurricanes, there are going to be power outages no matter what," said Bannister, the TECO spokesman.

He said that even some underground power systems were damaged by Jeanne.

Some customers also refuse to allow utilities onto their property to trim limbs from beloved trees, said C.J. Drake, a Progress Energy spokesman.

"There are homeowners and communities that like their trees," Drake said. "And we certainly appreciate that. But if a limb threatens to fall, we have to take care of that."

Residents from around the region might trade a tree limb or two for power.

During the Frances outage, Miles Roberts, a pizza deliveryman from Tampa, said he learned to wash his work uniform by hand. He lost power again Sunday.

"Finding stuff to do besides the computer and TV" is a challenge, said Roberts, 19. "I caught up on a lot of reading."

Kathy Fowler of St. Petersburg watched Monday as power crews removed an oak tree from power lines near her home.

"I'm ready to go back north," the Washington, D.C., transplant said.

Nancy Jane Mikowski, 53, a schoolteacher, has learned to shower by candlelight. Frances cut power to her South Tampa home as well. Still, she is grateful as she watches the devastation Jeanne caused elsewhere on a small battery-powered television set.

"I really hate to complain, when you look at all the people that don't have a roof," she said.

Times staff writers Tom Zucco, Christopher Goffard, Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler, Lauren Bayne Anderson, Catherine E. Shoichet, Eileen Schulte and Sharon Bond contributed to this report, in addition to Times researcher John Martin and the Associated Press.

Robert Riffey of A Cut Above Tree & Lawn cuts a tree Monday for removal from the yard of Mark and Sherri Thompson on 21st Avenue N in St. Petersburg. Storms from Hurricane Jeanne caused the sycamore tree to fall on the home Sunday night, creating a hole in the roof that allowed water to leak inside.