Inside the Edgewater section of Miami, several roofs were ripped off, power lines lay on the ground and a large truck was overturned on its side in the middle of the street. (Sept. 11) AP
MIAMI — Ten days after Hurricane Irma made landfall on the west side of the Florida peninsula, residents on the east side are growing increasingly frustrated that government and power officials haven’t yet gotten the region completely up and running.
After threatening to plow straight into downtown Miami, Irma veered west and spared the booming metropolitan region from its full wrath. The National Weather Service estimates that Miami-Dade County received sustained tropical storm force winds between 50 and 70 mph, with frequent Category 1 and 2 gusts up to 100 mph.
Those winds were strong enough to knock out power to 90% of homes in the county, and many feel that the region’s most vulnerable remain in the dark. The Miami-Dade County Commission held a budget hearing on Tuesday night that transformed into a public venting session for angry residents, who were repeatedly asked by commissioners to keep their cool as their voices raged.
“In the days after the storm, families went hungry, elders suffered from the heat, people with diabetes were desperately asking for ice for their insulin, and the level of need was reprehensible,” said Andrea Mercado, executive director of the New Florida Majority, a group that organizes political campaigns focused on poor and minority communities. “It didn’t need to be this way.”
Valencia Gunder echoed those concerns. The community activist estimates that she coordinated 200 volunteers who helped hammer plywood on people’s windows and delivered food and water to poor neighborhoods. She pleaded with commissioners to stop congratulating themselves over their hurricane response and start scrutinizing the gaps in their response that has still left some people without help.
“I do not know the complete protocol for emergency response after a storm, but I really believe that it needs to be revisited now,” Gunder said. “We need to revisit every plan, turn over every page.”
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez bristled at accusations that the county has been slow to respond to poor neighborhoods in the county. He pointed out that the county oversaw 661,000 evacuations and opened 43 shelters that housed 31,500 residents — all county records.
“I’ve never heard of these people,” Gimenez said during a break in the commission meeting Tuesday. “So their claim of feeding people, etc., etc., I don’t even know if it’s true. I know the county response was very good. In the street, we get complimented all the time.”
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The anger in South Florida has also been directed at Florida Power & Light (FPL) which powers half the state and nearly all of the Miami region.
While Miami-Dade County was spared the worst of Irma’s winds, they were still strong enough to knock out power to 90% of homes in the county. Residents pointed to the nearly 10,000 homes that were still in the dark Tuesday night and wondered how the city could survive a stronger storm if Irma was able to do so much damage.
“The hurricane didn’t hit. The power stayed out for how long? It’s still out in some places. Have you talked with those people?,” said David McDougal, who worked with activist groups to help low-income residents prepare for and respond to the storm.
Two law firms filed a lawsuit against FPL this week, arguing that Floridians have been charged higher rates intended to strengthen an electrical grid that failed during Irma. City leaders in Coral Gables and the Pinecrest neighborhood of Miami have also threatened litigation over the outages.
FPL dismissed those threats, issuing a strongly worded statement blaming Coral Gables in particular for not controlling the massive, street-covering trees that define the upscale city and knocked out power lines throughout the city.
By midday Wednesday, FPL had restored power to all but 890 accounts in Miami-Dade County, meaning 99.9% of homes that lost power during Irma were back online. FPL spokesman Peter Robbins said that’s a remarkable turnaround given the widespread outages throughout the state.
“There’s no such thing as ‘only’ a Cat 1 or ‘only’ a weak hurricane,” he said. “By definition, they are incredibly powerful forces of nature and Irma was no exception.”
Engineering experts agreed. Jerry Paul, an engineer and former state legislator, said he feels terribly for anybody still living without power 10 days after the storm. But he said overall, FPL’s ability to get the majority of Miami-Dade County homes back online within a week was “extraordinary.”
The company has spent nearly $3 billion since Hurricane Wilma in 2005 to install concrete power poles for its transmission lines and make its entire system more resilient. Paul, who used to worked at the U.S. Department of Energy, said that resulted in a statewide response following Irma that is the envy of the nation.
“Any state in the country will give anything to have that response following a tornado or a hurricane,” Paul said. “That’s no consolation if it’s you that is out of electricity. But relative to other places and how long they’re out, it’s night and day.”