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Utilities: Restoring power to take days

Some customers of Progress Energy Florida and Tampa Electric Co. might have to wait until the weekend to get their lights back on, the utilities said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Progress acknowledged it expects to ask the Florida Public Service Commission for a rate hike to cover its storm restoration costs. Tampa Electric also signaled that damage caused by Hurricane Jeanne could leave a deficit in its reserve fund for storm costs.

Progress of St. Petersburg said it expects to fully restore electricity to customers in Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties by midnight Friday, and in Pinellas County by midnight Saturday. Tampa Electric said it expects to have power restored to 95 percent of its customers by the end of Sunday.

For some areas, fully restoring power will take a day or two longer than in the wake of Hurricane Frances, mostly because of the difficulty in getting out-of-state assistance.

Thousands of linemen are assisting Gulf Power Co. of Pensacola finish recovery efforts after Hurricane Ivan, while many weary crews are returning home after having spent weeks in Florida restoring power after Hurricanes Charley and Frances.

Underscoring this manpower challenge was the arrival late Tuesday of line crews from California, Arizona, Nevada and other distant locales, who took the unusual step of flying into Florida because of the distances they had to travel. Flatbed big-rig trucks carrying their vehicles and equipment have been on the road since the weekend and are expected to arrive later in the week.

"We've had to find some creative means to bring crews into the state," Progress spokesman Aaron Perlut said.

All of which means residents in the Tampa Bay area and elsewhere in the state will soon witness the somewhat surreal spectacle of bucket trucks driving down their street emblazoned with the logos for San Diego Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and other faraway utilities.

Reno, Nev., electric company Sierra Pacific Resources is sending nine linemen, a supervisor and a mechanic to aid Progress in its restoration efforts around Orlando, said Craig Pinneo, the company's manager of electric operations and dispatch.

The company had no problem finding volunteers for its small relief contingent, Pinneo said. The line crew is eager to lend a helping hand to their Florida counterparts, he said.

San Diego Gas & Electric is sending about 30 linemen to assist Progress in Clearwater after receiving a call last week, said SDG&E spokesman Ed Van Herik. The cross-country trek is so unusual for the company that Van Herik, a former editor and reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, will accompany the linemen to write articles about their experience for the utility's employee publication.

"There are people who are excited," Van Herik said. "This provides a different dimension for them as far as work experience is concerned."

Storm restoration costs were a major topic of discussion Tuesday at a utility investor conference hosted by Merrill Lynch & Co. in New York.

Progress chief financial officer Geoff Chatas told attendees the company's storm recovery costs for Charley, Frances and Ivan were expected to come in at around $310-million to $330-million, most of which are from Florida, and far exceeding the company's reserve fund of about $41-million for such costs in the state. Progress has customers in the Panhandle who were affected by Ivan.

Chatas said he doesn't expect these costs to have a significant effect on the company's bottom line in 2004 because it can ask the PSC for permission to pass through these costs to customers.

In other words, Progress spokesman Perlut acknowledged, the company expects to ask the PSC for a rate hike to cover these costs. He said the utility might try to spread out any such increases over time to minimize the effect on ratepayers.

Tampa Electric has previously said its estimated $25-million to $30-million in restoration costs for Charley and Frances would be covered by its $42-million in storm reserves. However, the structural damage Jeanne caused to the utility's transmission system might push the company's storm costs above those reserves, spokeswoman Laura Plumb said.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker spent most of Tuesday touring the city and talking to the Progress crews working to restore power. As of midday, about 33,000 St. Petersburg residents _ including the mayor _ did not have electricity.

"I slept in a hot house last night," said Baker, who lives in the city's Old Northeast neighborhood. "It wasn't a lot of fun. . . .

"When you first talk to people after a storm, they're really mad," he said. "But they're mostly mad at the circumstances. And if you talk to them for a while, they start to understand and they feel better about the situation."

Times staff writer Carrie Johnson contributed to this report. Louis Hau can be reached at (813) 226-3404 or hausptimes.com.

LIGHTS OUT

Customers without power, as of late Tuesday afternoon:

PINELLAS: 94,294

HILLSBOROUGH: 68,218

PASCO: 24,204

HERNANDO: 6,934

CITRUS: 5,820

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