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Power crews in Florida work to restore electricity to flooded areas

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Nearly 3 million Floridians lost power from Hurricane Ian. Getting the power back falls in part to Florida Power & Light, one of the state's biggest electricity providers.

ERIC SILAGY: We're making great progress. But for those folks that are still out, it's tough. And we are doing everything we can to be quick without being unsafe.

MARTINEZ: That's Eric Silagy, CEO of the utility company. And he says they're ahead of schedule.

SILAGY: We are now expecting to have everybody who can take power back up by end of Friday.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Although, that comes with its own challenges.

SILAGY: We had one of our technicians go into a substation right after the storm via kayak, which is not in our normal fleet of equipment - to airboats through high-water vehicles.

INSKEEP: Via kayak - and though every storm is different, every hour counts.

SILAGY: This is moving an army, right? I have 21,000 people in the field right now. So we're religious about, how do we stay efficient and productive?

MARTINEZ: And that army he's talking about is seen all over the hurricane-battered portions of southwest Florida. To get a better sense of what their work is like, NPR's Martin Kaste spent some time with crews in Cape Coral and sends this report.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: After a storm like this, they bring in linemen from across the country. The Lee County Electric Cooperative, which serves suburban and rural areas around Fort Myers, normally has about 200 people available for line work. Right now, they have 2,000. James Cordella (ph) is just in from Long Island. He and his buddies are still getting their bearings here.

JAMES CORDELLA: They're keeping us in trailers. It's, like, 36 men to a trailer, three bunks high, snoring and farting all night.

KASTE: Cordella is in a jokey mood, but it's still early. He may feel differently at the end of this 16-hour shift. They'll work at that pace seven days a week until the job's done. And as jobs go, this one has its share of risks.

CORDELLA: High voltage - you're getting electrocuted, falling out of the sky. A car could come by and hit your truck and tip your truck over, send you flying out of it, you know? There's a lot of risks involved.

KASTE: Cordella is sitting in the middle of a double line of about 100 utility trucks staged in a field out behind the box stores in Cape Coral. Today's marching orders are coming from Rusty Snider. He comes from a family with four generations of linemen. And he used to play in a band called Killa-Watts. He explains how the storm repairs will work. They start at each substation and fan out.

RUSTY SNIDER: We start going out the backbone, our major feeder circuits. We strip everything off of it, all the taps going to the side to residential areas. We'll strip it off. We'll go down through and make all repairs on the major feeder backbone. We'll get that heated back up.

KASTE: As he's explaining this, a passing motorist sees all the parked utility trucks, slows down and starts yelling, why aren't they working yet?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: There's a lot of people there without power.

SNIDER: Yes, sir. We got it under control. Thank you very much for your input. We deal with that nonstop.

KASTE: Snider says this kind of thing can distract crews in the field, increasing the chances of an accident. That aside, he says, the worst part of the job is when you first get there and you have to untangle the chaos left by the storm.

SNIDER: You have to go down through there. You have to untie all the wire, get it off of it - get that big chunk of pole and crossarms and picked-up transformers. And we have oil containment, people that come out and try to bag that stuff up. That's the fight first. Putting the pole in the ground and putting the wires back up, that's the easier end of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAW REVVING)

KASTE: And that's the fight here at the corner of Chiquita and West 19th Lane, where the storm snapped a couple of utility poles like pencils, draping wires across yards. The top of one pole dangles from a hydraulic arm with a winch, while a man up in a bucket cuts the bottom half loose with a chainsaw. A resident sits in a lawn chair in his open garage, watching the show above his house. Neighbors Cassandra Bishop (ph) and Tim Edge (ph) stay a little farther back.

CASSANDRA BISHOP: We know they're doing what they have to do and take their time to do it. So...

TIM EDGE: We actually saw an LCEC rep come by yesterday. And he's like, you know, you guys are the nicest I've talked to today.

KASTE: Despite some people's impatience to get their power back on, this process is going faster than expected given the size of the storm. The co-op's spokesperson, Karen Ryan, says the damage was more limited because more lines are now underground. And electrical equipment is getting tougher. Still, it's recently become harder to get the tougher equipment, such as climate-adapted transformers, because of supply chain problems.

KAREN RYAN: It's like, it used to be a 12-week lead time. It's 123-week lead time now for a transformer. So we were rationing them in case we had a hurricane. And thank goodness we did that or we would not - we would be in dire straits right now, not having equipment.

KASTE: But, she says, now, after the hurricane, this region has jumped to the head of the line for storm-hardened transformers. Other places will now have to ration. And linemen here will be able to rebuild the local grid stronger for the next storm.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Cape Coral. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.