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As power whirs back on, it doesn't always hum

Kenny Walker and his neighbors on E Chelsea Street in east Tampa were lucky: They didn't lose power because of Hurricane Jeanne.

At least not until a 50-foot branch from a live oak tree toppled onto a nearby power line late Wednesday morning. Three days after Jeanne plowed through Hillsborough County, Walker, 32, had no power.

"I wish that tree had fallen two days ago rather than now," the disabled construction worker said. "They would have had everything situated now."

Tampa Bay area utilities continued efforts Wednesday to get the lights back on for tens of thousands of customers still without electricity. Progress Energy Florida of St. Petersburg had some good news to report, saying it expects to have power fully restored in Pinellas County by midnight Friday, a day earlier than expected.

But as they await the return of electricity, some customers have discovered that power outages can come in unexpected ways. Broken branches can hang precariously off a tree before dropping on a power line days after a storm. Repair work on one power line may require de-energizing a larger, nearby line, cutting off electricity for hours to an entire neighborhood.

A home or business can even lose just a portion of its power, as happened to the Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church in South Tampa, which has been without full power since Saturday evening, according to facilities manager Wally Wilcher.

Some lights and wall plugs remain operational, but major appliances don't work. No air conditioning. No elevators. No fire alarm system.

Partial power provides for some curious combinations, Wilcher said.

"I can work on my computer in my office," he said. "But I have to do it in the dark. Down the hall, they have lights. It doesn't always make sense. We have extension cords running all over the place."

The church canceled services last Sunday for the first time since Wilcher began attending 30 years ago. Parishioners have used the outdoor breezeway for small prayer groups, he said. The prayer chapel remains open.

Representatives for Tampa Electric and Progress Energy said that partial outages are fairly common after major storms. The "service drop" that connects a home to a nearby power line is typically composed of three wires: two 120-volt lines and one neutral line. If only one of the 120-volt lines go out, that can knock out power to some wall sockets and major appliances, while allowing small appliances and some lights to stay on.

Despite the inconvenience, Wilcher is being patient.

"I worked for Tampa Electric for many years," he said. "I know what those poor souls are going through. We can only wait our turn."

East Tampa resident Walker said he didn't expect he'd be suddenly left without power this long after the passing of Jeanne.

On Wednesday afternoon, parks maintenance employees from the city of Tampa used chain saws and a large mulcher to clear away the huge oak branch that had pulled down a power line at E Chelsea and N Englewood streets. A Tampa Electric line crew was expected to arrive on the scene later in the day.

Tampa Electric spokesman Ross Bannister said storm-damaged trees belatedly losing limbs are a frequent annoyance during restoration work.

"They were dealt a death blow but they manage to stand for a few days," he said.

Walker said he hoped the loss of power wouldn't force him to fire up his backyard barbecue again.

"I'm getting tired of barbecue," he said. "You can't eat it every day."


Customers without power, as of Wednesday afternoon:

Pinellas: 53,421

Hillsborough: 36,078

Pasco: 13,470

Hernando: 3,953

Citrus: 1,393