INVERNESS - Tropical Storm Jeanne blacked out part of Citrus County on Sunday, the second time this month that a storm caused widespread outages. Although calmer skies are expected today, power companies - overwhelmed by the unprecedented storm attack Florida has endured the past six weeks - warned residents that power restoration will be slow going.
By 5 p.m., an estimated 18,530 county customers were without electricity, a number shockingly lower than the 50,000 customers Frances' winds robbed of power during the Labor Day weekend.
Power company officials warned that the numbers would rise today once crews were safely able to assess damage, which could take as long as two days.
Still, the numbers were lower than expected, given the force Jeanne carried with it as it punched its way west through the Tampa Bay area and over Citrus.
"We've actually done rather well in Citrus compared to how we did in other counties," Sumter Electric Cooperative Inc. spokesman Barry Bowman said.
Like a big fish caught on light tackle, Jeanne snapped through power lines as early as 5 a.m. Sunday, county spokeswoman Jessica Sanderson said.
Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative, one of Citrus' three power providers, reported outages as early as 6 a.m. Sunday.
"Throughout the night, we have experienced some significant wind gusts and rain," spokesman Ernie Holzhauer said early Sunday, several hours before the storm's eye passed over the county. "Crews are responding to a few scattered power outages."
By 8 a.m., reports of trees tackling power lines began to filter in with frequency over emergency dispatch airwaves. Progress Energy reported that more than 160,000 of its Florida customers were without power at the time, mostly in Highlands, Orange and Polk counties. Of its 1.5-million customers, 41,145 live in Citrus County.
An hour later, Withlacoochee officials reported nearly 10,000 of its customers were without power, including 112 in Citrus. The power company serves 178,000 residents in Citrus and four surrounding counties.
With wind gusts exceeding 50 mph, the cooperative pulled its workers off roads. By 9:20 a.m., state officials in Tallahassee reported that 938,000 people were powerless throughout Florida as the storm marched toward Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.
Still, with the eye of the storm near Bartow at noon, only 196 Citrus Progress Energy customers had lost power. The worst was yet to come.
By midmorning, a stoplight in downtown Inverness darkened and a Citrus County sheriff's patrol car sat at Main Street and Seminole Avenue monitoring traffic. In Floral City, a power line near Great Oaks Drive and Magnolia Street sparked colorful flames and danced on the wet asphalt. The storm's wind and rain seemed to grow stronger.
At 4 p.m., as the eye of the storm approached Inverness, SECO officials reported 3,000 Citrus customers out of power; Progress Energy reported 6,471 customers; and WREC estimated that 9,059 of its customers were without power.
The Progress Energy complex north of Crystal River, however, was "doing fine" late Sunday afternoon, spokesman Mac Harris said. Aided by a relief crew, the nuclear power plant's staff had experienced relatively few problems Sunday. But officials carefully were watching a storm surge in the nearby Gulf of Mexico come evening.
"Right now, the storm has not caused a situation where we had to bring the plant down," Harris said. "We're going to watch that storm surge very closely."
As of noon, all other county utility systems were functioning normally, county officials said. The Ozello Water District did not shut down service to southwestern Citrus customers as was reported late Saturday, and all sewer lift stations were operable.
The county did recommend that residents who live in the flood-threatened Arrowhead neighborhood in northeast Citrus boil their water. Residents who live in neighborhoods north of Black Diamond along County Road 491, including those who live Oak Ridge, also were advised to boil their drinking water because of a water main break that took place Friday.
Even before the storm, power companies warned residents to be patient and that power restoration, in all likelihood, would take longer than it did after Frances.
Gov. Jeb Bush said Saturday that power workers in the state have been stretched by successive hurricanes and that out-of-state help was becoming harder to find.
Progress Energy officials said they will follow the same power restoration plan used during Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan, staging as many as 8,000 power workers just out of reach of Jeanne's projected storm track so they can flood into damaged areas when the storm leaves.
However, much of the resources are expected to be devoted to harder-hit Pinellas County, which had more than 174,500 outages, and Polk County, which had 122,334 outages.
Despite having more than a third of Progress Energy's 1.5-million customers without power, spokesman Harris said the company was able to restore power to 3,600 Citrus customers on Sunday.
"Between the rain bands," he said, "we were able to get crews to them."
The company is working with more than 220 utility companies in 48 states trying to secure more help, but it hasn't been easy for any of the utility companies.
"Just as the other companies," SECO's Bowman said, "resources are slim."
SECO recalled 20 members of a restoration team, which was sent to Escambia and Santa Rosa counties after Hurricane Ivan. They have been working for days to find and persuade as many contract crews as possible to come help restore power after Jeanne, but officials said they will not have as many out-of-state crews available to help as they did during Frances.
So far, they had only been able to receive commitments from contract crews from Tennessee and Arkansas. Many workers working in the Panhandle devastated by Hurricane Ivan are unwilling to leave the area because they did not want to abandon such a grim task up north, Bowman said.
"It's probably going to take every bit as long as the Frances restoration if not, in fact, longer," Bowman said, estimating how long Citrus residents could be without power. Of its 134,000 customers in seven counties, Sumter Electric Cooperative Inc. has 14,000 in Citrus County.
Hurricane Frances, deemed a tropical storm by the time it struck Citrus on Labor Day weekend, knocked out power to more than 50,000 county residents. Bill Habermeyer, Progress Energy's chief executive officer, said Citrus was affected by the storm more than any in its service area, and some residents went without power for a week or longer.
County officials criticized the company in the aftermath for not bringing enough workers into the area and because it didn't follow the county's power restoration priority list. Company officials later acknowledged that it did not perform as well as it should have after the storm.
They promised to follow the county's recommendations this time around but, in a foreboding forecast, warned that it could take "several days" before power is restored to Citrus customers.