As the fourth day after Hurricane Irma stretched on, a fifth of the state remained without lights or air conditioning as energy companies worked to restore one of the largest power outages in the country's history.
As of 9 p.m. Thursday, about 2.1 million customers still didn't have power — down from the peak 6.7 million with outages reported across the state Monday afternoon. It took utility companies working round the clock since Monday with thousands of out-of-state workers to restore power to 4.4 million Florida customers rocked by Irma's strong winds.
About 282,000 of those homes and businesses still in the dark are in Tampa Bay, including nearly 53,000 in Polk and 37,000 in Pasco.
There were about 70,000 customers without power in Hillsborough County — down from more than 214,000 Wednesday morning.
That means TECO and other energy companies in the area restored power to more than 162,000 customers in the one-day period. TECO, the parent of Tampa Electric, set the goal earlier this week of restoring power to all homes and businesses by Sunday.
"We made major progress yesterday and overnight, and we have another great day of progress ahead us," said TECO spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs, who noted that 80 percent of TECO customers in Hillsborough County now have power.
Pinellas County was the hardest hit in Tampa Bay, with almost 80 percent of the county powerless immediately after the storm. That's roughly 400,000 Duke Energy customers. More than two thirds of those had power back by Thursday afternoon, while nearly 116,000 continued to wait.
"The infrastructure damage is causing the lengthiest repair time," said Ana Gibbs, spokeswoman with Duke Energy. "Replacing and restringing power lines takes time. There was a job earlier in Pinellas where a 20-man crew had to replace a tall pole that held layered lines. It took them and 10 bucket trucks five hours to replace."
Gibbs offered Duke Energy's response to Hurricane Matthew as an example of just how big Hurricane Irma is and its impact on outages.
"We had just over 300,000 power outages after Hurricane Matthew last year, and we were able to restore them in 72 hours," she said. "In comparison, we've had 1.2 million customer outages from Irma. There is a drastic difference in the size and scope of this storm."
All Duke Energy Pinellas customers should have power up and running by midnight Friday, officials said.
While energy companies are still working to power up a quarter of the state, Director of Energy Studies at University of Florida Ted Kury said the weeks and months after Irma will be spent determining what could have been done better.
Kury said the state learned a lot following a spate of hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, causing the Florida Public Service Commission to host annual meetings in Tallahassee each spring to discuss best practices for storm hardening and preparation, Kury said.
"One thing we've learned is there's no blanket policy that applies to everything in Florida," Kury said.
For instance, when power goes out, people start asking questions like, 'Why aren't my power lines underground?' But while burying power lines at first seems like a good idea, it's not a direct solution. It protects them from wind damage and debris, but it often makes them more susceptible to flooding or storm damage.
"Since it costs more to bury the lines, you certainly don't want to spend more and get worse service," Kury said.
Those meetings also helped utilities share information on the best way to communicate with customers, Kury said. For example, Duke Energy conducted a survey that found most people prefer to report outages on line. Their last choice is calling in an outage, which used to be the only option. That's led some utility companies to focus more energy on social media and online outreach.
"What the public service commission and what the utilities learned in '04-'05 has been put into practice," Kury said. "And they'll continue to discuss this an open forum and transparent manner as recovery from Irma continues."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.
Powering back up — by the numbers
Number of electricity customers in Florida: 10.5 million
Number of customers who lost power in Hurricane Irma: 6.7 million
Number of customers still without power as of 9 p.m.: 2.1 million