About 5,000 electric workers descended upon St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field Tuesday to prepare for widespread power outages caused by Hurricane Idalia.
Duke Energy spokesperson Lee Freeman called the staging area a temporary city. He said arranging several hundred trucks in Lots 1 and 2 was orchestrated chaos.
Idalia’s winds knocked down trees and power lines across a large swath of Florida’s Gulf Coast before it slammed the Big Bend region as a Category 3 hurricane. Crews staged at the Trop helped restore electricity for over 70,000 Duke Energy Florida customers by 11:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Still, more than 64,000 remain without power; nearly 28,000 are in Pinellas County. Freeman said Duke’s storm department plans for catastrophic events year-round, enabling them to quickly amass restoration crews, bus them to local hotels and redeploy them throughout the area and state.
“Their job is to plan for storms – this is all they do,” Freeman said. “The thing is, when you’re planning for a storm, you need a centralized location like this.”
He said the Trop housed about 300 bucket trucks and 600 vehicles total. Freeman called some “tanks,” which use tracks instead of wheels to navigate swampy areas.
The first crews arrived around 10:30 a.m. Tuesday. All were independent contractors who drove from other states.
Duke Florida officials stationed their employees at over a dozen operation centers statewide. The St. Petersburg-based company also operates a secretive, heavily secured local Distribution Control Center.
“We can shift people easily,” Freeman said. “So, they could go north, but they may come back down if we can’t find a place for them to stay up there.”
He said Duke officials secure partnerships with the Tampa Bay Rays, food vendors, bus companies and area hotels long before a storm arrives. They also contract with sister utilities throughout the Southeast and Midwest.
Freeman said those crews “love coming here because they get paid a lot” and “the work is really rewarding.” Eddie Brown, operation superintendent for Alabama-based Corbitt Power & Light, agreed.
“That’s something that’s always been gratifying to me,” Brown said. “Helping people out, getting their power back on.”
Brown had “no idea” where Duke would send him and his team Wednesday morning, but he welcomed the challenge. He was also quick to credit the company’s tree crews for clearing debris that could hide energized lines.
Brown noted that inexperienced workers wear personal voltage detectors around their necks to help prevent electrocutions. All wear rubber gloves and follow strict safety protocols.
Working from extended bucket trucks presents another danger. The Occupational and Health Administration (OSHA) listed electrical line installation and repair as the most dangerous job in the nation.
The death rate doubles that of police officers and firefighters.
Brown urges residents to remain patient with electric crews. He explained that they must follow corporate procedures, “and if you see a guy sitting around, it’s not because they’re just being lazy.”
Brown said they work 16-hour shifts to restore power after a storm. Jeff Baker, government and community relations manager for Duke, said local flooding would exacerbate electrocution risks at a press conference Wednesday morning.
He urged residents leaving flooded homes to turn off their circuit breakers. Baker also said residents should assume any downed lines are live.
In addition, residents should turn generators off when crews are working nearby. The electrical load presents an additional hazard, according to a Wednesday afternoon announcement.
Duke officials also said customers in the hard-hit areas should prepare for extended outages. “We are committed to working as quickly and safely as possible to get the lights back on for our customers,” said Todd Fountain, Duke Florida storm director, in a prepared statement.
“Many of our customers are still feeling Idalia’s impact. Our crews will continue to restore power where it is safe to do so.”
To view current outages, visit the website here.