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Utility is home to controlled chaos

Like NASA engineers, they huddle in front of computers, a giant wall-to-wall map of miles and miles of electrical circuits looming over them.

The telephones never stop ringing.

Here, in the war room of your local power company, the decision is made as to when the electricity in your house will be turned back on.

A windowless room inside a storm-shuttered brown building at 78th Street and Palm River Road has been Tampa Electric Co.'s storm headquarters ever since Charley swept in, knocking out power to hundreds of thousands. Then came Frances. And Jeanne.

Hundreds of workers operate around the clock here. They eat catered meals, sleep on cots, freshen up in shower stalls, too swamped to tend to their own families.

"It's a little stressful, but it's fun," said Ashley Browder, who started work Saturday as Jeanne approached, finally got home Monday night only to return to work at 8 Tuesday morning.

Browder fields calls from police and fire officials reporting downed power lines.

A truck is entangled in a power line at Shell Point Road. A bridge is washed out in Lithia.

Browder enters the information into a computer and passes it on to the dispatch pod, where the reports are prioritized for attention.

As of Tuesday afternoon, there was a waiting list of 21,000 "tickets" or reports. More than 109,000 of Tampa Electric's 620,000 customers still did not have power.

John Ramil, president of TECO Energy, toured storm headquarters Tuesday, stopping to shake hands and thank employees for their hard work.

"You doing okay?" he asked, putting a hand on a shoulder.

Many of the workers are performing jobs out of the realm of their daily duties.

The head of human resources is in charge of finding rooms for the 1,700 repair workers and support crews from out of state assisting Tampa Electric. A community relations employee is delivering meals to workers. An information technology worker is answering phone calls from hungry crew members.

On the first floor, Ramil checked on the progress of finding lodging for the workers. In a room with a hand-made sign declaring "Hotels R Us," employees were booking beds at local hotels for workers and support staff Tuesday night.

Across the hall, more than 25 people manned a phone bank devoted to the power crews. If they need food, water or even their clothes laundered, these impromptu concierges are at their disposal.

"We don't want them worrying about a thing but restoring power," said Ramil, standing amid three mesh bags of laundry.

He headed upstairs to the command center, where the decisions are made on what outage to fix next.

A wall-to-wall map showed every single power circuit in Tampa Electric's service area. Tacked onto the wall map were four separate maps with color-coded dots: one map showing where the outages were for Charley, another for Frances, another for Jeanne, and one for all three storms combined.

There were so many dots on some sections of the maps that they ran together to form solid blotches of color.

Rows of computer screens flashed information about outages.

Amid the technology were signs of the extraordinary human effort. Two air mattresses peeked out from behind a silk ficus tree. Pillows and blankets were folded against a back wall.

When it comes to restoring power, Ramil said, hospitals, critical care centers, police and fire stations get top priority. Then come sewage pumping stations, wastewater sites and schools. Finally, residential neighborhoods.

There are priorities for homes, too. Crews are sent to trouble spots that will bring the most people back online at once.

"You can't devote four days to restoring power to just two people," Ramil said. "You lose your whole strategy and efficiency."

If you suspect Ramil's neighborhood is on top of that residential priority list, think again.

He lost power at his home in Tampa Palms during Frances. Neighbors pleaded with him for special attention, but they all went without for several days. "Some don't talk to me anymore," he said.