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Thousands fume as Duke Energy misses deadline to restore power

A lineman works to get power back to a neighborhood in Clearwater on Wednesday. About 60,000 Duke customers in Pinellas County remained powerless at 9:24 p.m. Friday, according to state data. Across Tampa Bay, electricity was out for 112,543 customers, part of the 1.4 million Floridians still without power after Irma made landfall. [LARA CERRI | Times]
Published Sep. 16, 2017

Like the heat, John Johnson's anger has built all week.

For days, he has sweated through Hurricane Irma's aftermath. He lost power at 8 p.m. Sunday. He has heard the repeated vow from Duke Energy that they'd have electricity back for hundreds of thousands of Pinellas customers like him by midnight Friday. He has watched power trucks roll by his street.

But Friday afternoon, Johnson was still in the dark. He has sat in his sweltering home in Largo with five dogs, for five days now, stewing.

"They're a bunch of liars," he said. "They weren't prepared for this storm. They can't tell the truth."

HURRICANE COVERAGE: Irma causes one of the largest disaster power outages in the nation

About 60,000 Duke customers in Pinellas County remained powerless at 9:24 p.m. Friday, according to state data. Across Tampa Bay, electricity was out for 112,543 customers, part of the 1.4 million Floridians still without power after Irma made landfall.

A statement from Duke Energy issued at 10:40 p.m. Friday said it missed its self-imposed midnight deadline. It said the utility restored power to 96 percent of its customers in Pinellas and Pasco counties, leaving tens of thousands still without electricity.

Duke revised its deadline to the end of the day Saturday.

"We are in the home stretch of restoring all our customers," said Duke Energy Florida President Harry Sideris in the statement. "Given the scale and scope of the extensive repairs, we need just a little more time in some areas to finish the job."

Johnson, 51, wasn't surprised that Duke didn't hit its mark. He has been sleeping in the back seat of his pickup, the air conditioner cranked up. His shiba inus pant all day, alternately irritated and lethargic, lapping up bowl after bowl of water.

"Duke?" he said. "I'd like them to put on an animal outfit and live in it for five days straight with no air conditioning."

So it went for thousands of sweaty, angry people across the bay area, worried they were about to spend the whole weekend in the dark.

Scott Berman stared across his Safety Harbor subdivision, one side with power, the other without.

"It's not fair," he said.

Berman, 54, has spent the last few nights sweating, fumbling around his home near Mease Countryside Hospital with a flashlight. His mother-in-law is 98 and has dementia, he said; the disease means she needs to sleep in a familiar environment even without electricity.

He said he keeps calling Duke Energy but has received little information.

"They don't return any calls and they don't give any updates," he said. Despite the company's public statements, he doubted he'd have power back by midnight.

"Everyone just seems to forget about us," he said. "Nobody seems to care."

Church friends have given his family ice and meals. He and his wife have had to charge their cellphones in the car. On Friday, Berman said, he read on Twitter that Duke was going to waive late fees for bills this month.

"We shouldn't even have to pay the bill," he said.

In Marion County, Judson Wallace, another Duke customer, said utility workers came through his neighborhood to assess the damage. But he said it appeared that they've done little to actually fix the problem.

"I wonder — sitting here literally in a pool of sweat each day — how much longer my food and water is going to last," said Wallace, 34.

He said his diet has been reduced to canned tuna and corn chips.

Most days, Wallace said, he thought the Duke crews looked like they were packing up at 5:30 p.m., not working any extra hours. "My opinion is that they're not working very hard," he said.

Gibbs said crews are working shifts of 16 hours on, eight hours off, and are being paid overtime. Most crews are working during daylight hours.

"That's because we can maximize our productivity and efficiency during the daylight," the Duke Energy spokeswoman said. "Being in the dark slows them down."

Hurricane Irma cut power to an unprecedented swath of Florida last weekend when it sliced through the peninsula, downing trees and power lines from Key West to Jacksonville. Pinellas County was especially hard hit, with about 400,000 customers powerless immediately after the storm.

Tens of thousands more homes and businesses were without electricity around Tampa Bay. By Friday night, about 36,000 Tampa Electric customers still didn't have power. The company anticipated it would have service "to essentially all customers" restored by Sunday night, said spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs.

Progress on the last customers, she said, would likely go slower.

"These are areas that have been more heavily impacted and may, in some cases, require rebuilding," Jacobs said. "And the work is a little more complex."

In Shore Acres in northeast St. Petersburg, Gary Grudzinskas, 54, sent his three sons to friends' homes to sleep as the heat filled his house this week. Friday, he said, the thermostat read 92 degrees. His oldest son, 10, began to show a heat rash.

Neighbors, he said, called Duke Energy and heard the same thing from representatives who seemed to have little clue what was happening. They told people in Shore Acres there were no outages in the area, Grudzinskas said, even though there clearly were.

"Duke doesn't seem to know what power is on and what power is off," he said.

Late Friday, though, linesmen came with chainsaws and prepared to cut away the tree that had fallen on a line near Grudzinskas' home.

Then the sky darkened, he said, and it began to rain.

The power crew packed up and left.

Times staff writer Samantha Putterman contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson. Contact Josh Solomon at jsolomon@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4613. Follow @josh_solomon15.

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