Hurricane Irma on Sept. 7 approaching Cuba as a Category 5 storm with sustained winds near 170 mph.
Creative Commons/Flick user Anttl Lipponen  

Hurricane Irma, one of the strongest and largest hurricanes in U.S. history, is expected to slam into Florida Saturday morning and utility executives in the state expect unprecedented devastation.

Thousands of IBEW linemen and tree trimmers are preparing for the state’s worst natural disaster since Andrew in 1992. That storm did more than $26 billion in damage and left nearly 1.5 million Floridians without power at its peak.

And Irma looks like it could be worse.

Power outages will be measured in weeks, not days said Florida Power and Light President and CEO Eric Silagy.

“We are better prepared for this storm than any in our company’s history,” Silagy said. Even so, he said the company expects at least 4.1 million power outages affecting more than 9 million people due to Irma’s size, which is more than double that of Andrew. “Unprecedented,” Silagy said. “For one single storm; unprecedented for this state, unprecedented for the country.”

Business Manager Gary Aleknavich, whose System Council U-4 represents 2,900 FPL employees at 11 local unions, says he expects hurricane-force winds to impact every corner of the state save perhaps the far western reaches of Florida’s panhandle. “There are restoration events and then there are rebuilding events,” he said. “This is going to be a rebuilding event, maybe unlike anything we’ve seen before.”

In preparation, FPL’s 1,200 full-time lineworkers are working regular shifts until Irma gets closer, likely Saturday night. At that point, 200 volunteer “stormriders” will hunker down in Category 5-rated reinforced buildings, riding out 150 mph sustained winds and 200 mph gusts, so that they can spring into action the second the storm passes.

More than 10,000 lineworkers and tree trimmers from as far away as California are en route, massing near the Florida-Georgia line, ready to head south when winds have dropped to safe levels. It may take a day after the storm passes for winds to fall below 40 mph, when trucks can deploy and some time longer until winds fall below the 30 mph required to raise buckets. That means the bulk of the restoration work won’t get started until well after Irma’s worst is over.

Aleknavich suspects that will be late Sunday, with the vast majority of the workforce hitting the roads early Monday morning. “After that, our brothers and sisters will be working 16-hour days, 7 days-a-week, until the power is back for everyone.”

During the worst of the storm, FPL’s two nuclear plants, Turkey Point in Homestead, Fla., and St. Lucie in Jensen Beach, Fla., will shut down in accordance with Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules, and fossil fuel plants will operate until wind speeds reach 100 mph and then restart when the winds recede.

Silagy expects thousands of miles of power lines to be affected, and that Irma’s strongest gusts are capable of snapping rebar-reinforced concrete utility polls. Underground lines will automatically shut down in the event of flooding or storm surges and be able to come back online as soon as water recedes. But debris will be a major issue, Silagy said, encouraging Florida residents to treat any downed power line as if it were live and to stay out of water where downed lines could be submerged.

“We can rebuild anything,” he said. “But we can’t rebuild a life.”

For Palatka, Fla., Local 1263 Business Manager Scott Rauch, who will serve as a stormrider during the worst of Irma, “it’s nerve-wracking,” he said. “Everybody’s anxious, but we’re following the plan, doing everything we can to make sure everything is secure.”

Like other IBEW brothers and sisters who expect to be working restoration almost non-stop for the coming weeks, he’s been securing his own home and doing his best to make sure his family will be safe in Irma’s path.  “The worst part is wondering if you’ve done enough,” he said. “Nobody’s going to be spared.”

The IBEW Unity Fund is collecting resources to help brothers and sisters in need in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, which hit Texas last week, Irma and Jose, which is a Category 4 storm close on Irma’s heels. Donations can be made online.