TALLAHASSEE | Millions of Florida utility customers still don’t have power and in many parts of the state food, water and fuel are scarce. These are the effects of Hurricane Irma that Florida responders are now working to address.
“I know everyone is going to work hard to try to get this state back to normal as fast as we can, to get the schools back open, to get people back to normalcy as soon as possible,” Gov. Rick Scott told reporters Tuesday during a visit to the state Emergency Operations Center.
Scott boarded a Black Hawk helicopter in Jacksonville Tuesday and toured Hurricane Irma damage in Duval and St. Johns counties before returning to the Tallahassee EOC to thank staffers, many of whom have worked long hours and sometimes overnight shifts for several days. Afterward, he left for Southwest Florida to tour more areas ravaged by the storm.
The EOC is staffed by state and federal agencies, meteorologists, military personnel, non-profit organizations like the Red Cross and even private businesses who have a hand in responding during times of natural disasters. In Florida, that usually means a hurricane has impacted the state.
What made Irma especially devastating was its size. Nearly all of Florida — the entire peninsula and parts of the Panhandle — was impacted. That made preparing for the storm and the recovery now underway more difficult, the governor said.
“One thing that hurt us a little bit in the beginning was the storm was coming up the state and you couldn’t pre-position all the assets you want,” Scott said. “If it had been in one coast or the other, it would have been a little bit easier.”
Jacksonville also sustained more damage than forecasters predicted, necessitating a shift of resources to Northeast Florida, Scott said. Even President Donald Trump appeared to take notice, posting on Twitter about recovery efforts.
SLIDESHOWS: IRMA'S AFTERMATH
“The devastation left by Hurricane Irma was far greater, at least in certain locations, than anyone thought — but amazing people working hard!” the president wrote. His office later announced that he and Vice President Mike Pence would visit Florida on Thursday to tour damage, although no locations were specified.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency will eventually take the lead in helping individuals and businesses obtain money to rebuild homes and recover losses from Irma. People are being told to download the FEMA smartphone app or visit the disasterassistance.gov website to begin filing claims.
“Unfortunately with the experience of the disasters of Harvey and now this, phone lines are busy,” said Gracia Szczech, the regional administrator for eight southern states including Florida.
Emergency management personnel, meanwhile, are working on immediate needs: cleaning up schools that served as shelters so classes can resume, inspecting bridges in hard-hit areas to make sure they can withstand traffic as residents return home, and replenishing gas stations. To that end, Port Tampa, Port Everglades and Port Canaveral reopened for fuel trucks on Tuesday.
Debris removal is needed across the state, and food and water is being delivered to places like the Florida Keys and Lee County where people are still displaced or businesses are slow to reopen. More than 94,000 people remained in about 400 shelters still in use Tuesday across Florida.
The top priority a day after the storm moved through North Florida was restoring power. Tuesday morning, the state reported that 10.7 million people were without electricity but the number had decreased to 9.5 million by 6 p.m. Still, nearly half of Florida’s 20 million residents were still in the dark.
Florida Power & Light spokesman Rob Gould asked customers on Tuesday to be patient as they wait for restoration of electricity, including 77,330 customers in six Northeast Florida counties.
“We understand what it means to be in the dark. We understand what it means to be hot and without air conditioning,” Gould said. “We are out there 24/7. This will not be just a daylight operation. We will be restoring power day and night.”
Florida Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon said the size of the storm meant that it will take several days to address these issues, but there are people in the field and in Tallahassee working around the clock.
“Look at this room behind us,” he said Tuesday while nodding at the dozens of people staffing the EOC. “We’ve got hundreds of trucks out there. We’ve got hundreds or thousands of law enforcements officers; we’ve got thousands and thousands of National Guard folks out there and thousands of utility linemen. We are doing everything possible to get those structures back up in place so we can get back to normal.”
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.
Tia Mitchell: (850) 933-1321