When will power and cellphone services be restored? Patience urged

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About 1.86 million South Florida households were without electricity in South Florida on Monday, and cellphone outages

On the day after Hurricane Irma, the question everyone wants answered is: When will my power and cellphone service be restored?

The short answer: Your cellphone could be working again relatively soon. But you’ll likely have to wait longer – possibly weeks – before the light switches in your home are useful again.

On Monday, about 1.86 million of the 2.7 million homes and businesses in South Florida had no electricity, according to Florida Power & Light.

In Miami-Dade at 5 p.m., 782,900 out of a total 1.1 million customers had no power. In Broward, 601,370 out of 933,300 were in the dark. In Palm Beach County, 481,020 out of 739,000 had no juice. But power was restored to about 300,000 homes and businesses in the region overnight.

Cellphone outages were also widespread but harder to enumerate, because cellphone service relies on antennas and towers, so outages can be localized down to the neighborhood. This is why someone who has working service in Doral may not have a signal in Miami Beach, even though the provider is the same.

Also, high call volumes can also drag networks down, resulting in instant busy signals or no connection. The cellphone carriers have been recommending text messaging rather than calls whenever possible. Some customers were able to communicate by text and not voice.

“Wireless services in some parts of South Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are being affected by significant power outages and other storm damage,” said AT&T spokesperson Kelly Starling in a statement Sunday evening. “Additionally, in South Florida some wireline customers may be experiencing issues with their service caused by flooding and storm damage. Our technicians are working to restore service to affected areas as quickly and safely as conditions allow.”

Sprint spokesperson Roni Singleton said Sunday evening that 83 percent of the company’s sites were operational and working, but that “impacted cell site counts will continue to fluctuate depending on commercial power outages.” On Monday she added that the majority of service impacts in Florida are occurring in the West Palm and Miami areas.

A Verizon spokesperson said Monday that recovery efforts are underway in Tampa and Orlando south to Miami. “As waters recede, we are assessing damage and mobilizing equipment and people needed for repairs. Refueling operations are ready, so as soon as it’s safe to access our facilities, those operations will begin to ensure those towers remain in service,” said Kate Jay.

As for T-Mobile, spokeswoman Kaitlin Craig said Monday morning: “We working as quickly as we can to deploy crews to our sites as it is safe to do so. As I’m sure you have heard and seen, there is extensive damage and power outages across southern Florida, and we are making sure the safety of our crews remains a top priority as we assess our sites.”

Cellphone towers and antennae systems are built to withstand significant wind and flood risks, and many use backup generators that kick on when the power goes out. The carriers also have mobile cellular units, called COWs (Cell on Wheels) and COLTs (cell on light trucks), they can use in areas while repair work is underway.

Once the damage and flooding caused by Irma is assessed starting Monday morning, cellphone service should be able to be restored for most customers relatively quickly.

Electrical power, however, likely will take longer.

[READ MORE: 2 million homes and businesses have lost power in South Florida. What you need to know now.]

Roughly 19,500 line and vegetation workers began full-scale restoration efforts on Monday, FPL’s CEO and President Eric Silagy said. The repairs and restoration are forecast to take more than 1 million man hours, but the cost cannot be calculated yet.

“We are not going to bed here. We are working 24/7,” Silagy said on Sunday. “This is a monster.”

Still, he said, power has already been restored to many customers because of advancements in technology. “Despite Irma's exceedingly high winds, tornadic activity, storm surge and severe flooding, FPL has restored power to hundreds of thousands of customers, due largely to automation along its energy grid.”

Once the impact of tornadoes, wind and storm surge are known, the damage assessment should take about 48 hours, Silagy said.

“This is the hardest part of the storm for us. We know what our customers are going through,” Silagy said. “By the time the storm clears, some people will have been out for a day, and we haven’t even been able to roll a truck.”

In a press conference on Monday, Silagy said it will likely be “weeks” before power is restored to FPL customers.

On Monday morning, as Gov. Rick Scott departed for an aerial tour of the Keys Monday to view the extent of the physical damage, he also urged patience.

“Power lines are down throughout the state,”' he said. “We've got roads that are impassable, so everybody's got to be patient as we work through this.”

As part of its massive restoration effort that FPL said was the largest ever, FPL trucks were seen rolling throughout the region, including in Homestead, which had gone completely dark. About 90 percent of that city was still without electricity Monday morning but officials were working with FPL to prioritize Homestead Hospital, the police and fire stations.

That’s according to FPL’s recovery plan. According to FPL’s website, FPL will start with “critical facilities” such as hospitals, police and fire stations, communication facilities, water treatment plants and transportation providers. Next the focus will be on restoring power to “the largest number of customers in the shortest amount of time — including service to major thoroughfares that host supermarkets, pharmacies, gas stations and other needed community services.” Then FPL will move on to smaller areas of outages “around the clock until everyone has power again.”

Susan Salisbury of the Palm Beach Post contributed to this report. This report will be updated.

Nancy Dahlberg: 305-376-3595, @ndahlberg

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