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The Final Few Homeowners Without Power Post Irma Are Asking, Why Me?

You still see the unlucky ones around South Florida. By some stroke of bad luck or fallen branch, they’re still without power, imposing on friends or sweating through their sheets every night, and by day searching for free AC at coffee shops or supermarkets. 

Why did some people get power back and others didn’t, and how is it possible that our promised upgraded system still has outages? These are the questions left over now that we’re going on two weeks since Hurricane Irma made a glancing blow to our corner of Florida. 

As of Thursday, the company claimed 99.9 percent of their customers have power and that 4.4 million who lost it now have it back. More than 11,000 workers are out there trying to get that unlucky one-tenth-of-one-percent of customers back to living like they’re in the 21st century, the company promises. 

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FPL spokesman Bryan Garner says those still without power currently are largely in badly damaged areas, like still-flooded spots in Collier County, or neighborhoods where there are outages at just a few houses. "In many cases, you're going door to door," Garner says. "That's labor-intensive, time-consuming work." 

But that's still hard to take for those without it. Ashley Sawyer Smith and her husband Shea were among just 550 people in Fort Lauderdale still without power on Tuesday. After the storm, they roasted one night at home before imposing on a friend for about a week and then spent two nights in a hotel. 

“You feel like you’re in the twilight zone. Everything is moving on around you, and you feel like you’re stuck because you can’t live in your house,” Sawyer Smith said. 

All told, she estimates they spent $2,000, from hotel rooms, to meals out, to the hundreds of dollars of food they threw away in their fridge. She also missed eight days of work while dealing with storm cleanup.

Those without power for these past two weeks made a habit of scanning the neighborhoods for bucket trucks, chasing down linemen with bribes of beers in exchange for repaired lines. FPL claims it prioritizes fixes based on the number of people they will help.  

Since Irma, it has become something of a study in human nature to hear people rationalize why one street got power while another is still dark. Socioeconomics is among the top theories; but then there are anecdotal stories that contradict it, like the Rio Vista neighborhood street with million-dollar houses and home to City Commissioner Romney Rogers that got power after the blocks around it. 

“It really is a way to figure out how people think to hear their theories of why someone got power back,” says Lori Vajda. “It’s a real indication of how someone’s mind works.”

She and her husband Josh were out of town for the storm. She came back late last Friday and spent the first night at a hotel. “I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Red Carpet Inn on State Road 84, but it’s not a place you want to experience,” she says (and the 2.5 stars on Tripadvisor.com seem to confirm it). 

From there, they crashed at a home her uncle owns while returning to their house twice a day to check on power and clean up. They struggled to get a straight answer from FPL on when power would be back, first hearing the company promise everyone would get it back on Sunday, a week after the storm. Days later, the driver of a line truck swore it would be that afternoon, before Vajda watched him drive off and never return. Then, the power came on for the homes across the street. Finally, they got power on Monday. 

“People who got power back immediately, they don’t understand what it was like to be without it that long,” she says. “It’s the unforeseen costs that penalize you because of your displacement. You start losing sight of where your money is going.”

As for FPL, the company can simply recoup all of its costs from the storm. State law guarantees the company will see profits of about 10 percent, meaning any extra expenses incurred during the cleanup can be passed along to us by upping our bills. On top of that, state regulators approved $3 billion in rate increases since 2006 so that FPL could ready the power grid to survive storms. Customers might now wonder where that money went, but FPL claims things would have been a lot worse without it. 

"The investments we made absolutely made a postive effect on our customers," says Garner. 

For David Bohl, he and his family of four avoided the extra costs of evacuating or staying in a hotel by remaining at home after the storm. At first, not having power wasn’t so bad, with a slight drop of humidity making it nearly tolerable. “After the first couple of nights, it got really stifling,” Bohl recalls. 

Luckily, a neighbor with a hefty diesel generator threw a few extension cords over the fence, and the Bohls were able to power box fans that made nights almost not totally awful. They finally got their power back last Friday. 

But for someone who’s known for his zen approach to life, Bohl says the whole thing was a test. “All that tension? I would say we buried it,” Bohl says. “It was definitely tense, and a lot of time we were just going through the motions without trying to think too much about it.”

Through all the frustration and anxiety of not having power, Sawyer Smith says she kept trying to put it in perspective—she knows there are people worse off in the Keys and in the Caribbean. “I get that there are bigger issues in the world, I do,” she says. “When you look at what’s going on in Puerto Rico, that’s bad. That’s really bad.”

But for those who are still throwing power cords over to the neighbors, or running up hotel bills or imposing one more night in a guest bedroom, there is still the endless question directed at FPL: why us? 

 

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