CLEARWATER — The tree fell late Sunday. An enormous cedar, at least 40 feet tall, with branches blanketing two back yards.
The trunk, as wide as a couch, crushed a chain-link fence. The limbs tangled in power lines, wrestling them to the soggy ground. Wires snapped one power pole and bent another, whose lines pulled on the pole across the street, snapping those.
When people in the modest neighborhood behind Spectrum Field emerged after Hurricane Irma, they saw the splintered tree, the broken poles and dangling lines — and resigned themselves to being in the dark.
"Especially when we found out how many other people were out of power around the state," said Jamie Lewis, 28, who lives a block from the cedar. "I just knew it would take forever to get us up again."
The scene spiraled across Florida, the reality of being cut off from the grid: sweating through breakfast, beef jerky for dinner, black-out by 8 p.m. After two days, everything in the freezer melts. And the flashlight batteries run out.
Monday, as soon as the storm had passed, Duke Energy crews checked the damage and grounded downed lines, tying on orange flags to show which ones were secure. The company has 1.8 million customers in 35 Florida counties. Two-thirds of them — 1.2 million — had lost power. It is the most ever. Workers had to replace 3,000 poles, 1,100 transformers and string 950 miles of wire.
Tuesday, irate customers bombarded the call center. Angry tweets flooded the company account. People stormed the corporate offices, complaining — while 10,000 contractors from across Florida and a dozen other states rolled in to help. These workers come from lineages of linemen: grandfathers, uncles and brothers. They measure their careers in disasters: Andrew, Katrina, Sandy. They left their own families in homes without power, for who knows how long, checked into motels where the A/C was still out, set up tents in an Applebee's parking lot. They parked their equipment at Derby Lane, at Honeywell and Gulf View Square Mall.
Wednesday, residents behind Spectrum Field woke to the sweet sound of chain saws. Tree-trimmers, hired by Duke Energy, started slicing the downed cedar at dawn. By 9 a.m., a brigade of bucket trucks rumbled down Sharkey Road.
"We practice this like the Army," said Jose Proenza, 55, who drove four hours to get to his Clearwater assignment. Proenza wanted a job where he could work outside and help people. After 35 years, he has batted cleanup for so many storms he has lost count. He's now the liaison between Duke Energy and a 10-man crew his company contracted from Pike Electric. "We do a whole week run-through in the office, preparing for the disaster, then spend another week in the field doing drills. We're out here as soon as it gets light, and work until dark."
He helped his crew close the road with orange cones, made sure power had been cut to five city blocks on that electrical feed, directed workers to park beside the damaged poles. "We've got to secure that one, replace that one, straighten this one," he said, pointing. "We've got to splice old wire, hang new wire, and walk all the lines."
Before they had raised all the buckets, a woman came up the sidewalk pulling a red wagon with two toddlers, a case of Aquafina and a big box of Nature Valley granola bars. "We came to say thank you to all you guys," said Jahayra Torrelli, 37. She had worked four days through the storm as a nurse at Morton Plant Hospital and come home to a hot house. "We're so grateful!"
Proenza thanked her, saying, "We hope to have your power back on by dinnertime."
In the 90-degree heat, the crew wore fire-resistant shirts and pants, white hard hats, safety glasses, reflective green vests, orange gloves and steel-toed boots. They pulled on rubber overshoes, so they wouldn't get electrocuted. They worked in groups of four: a guy in the bucket, 40-feet in the air; a man driving the bucket from below; a safety inspector and someone on the ground shouting directions and giving hand signals. "Come down. Cable up. Swing over some. There it is!"
By 11 a.m., they had removed the broken power pole and planted a new one. An hour later, they had straightened the leaning one and strung long spools of new wire across the street, the gray cords as thick as a thumb. Three wires connect to every pole. Another runs into each house. A single line carries 7,200 volts.
Lineman Jake Reed, from Branford, was walking to his truck to get water when a woman ran out from the house next to the cedar tree and handed him a Ziploc full of home-made Snickerdoodles. "People are so nice," he said, biting into one. "Hey, who wants a cookie?"
A man in the house behind the broken pole watched from his living room, smoking. A man wearing blue pajama pants parked himself on the corner by the cones. Four elementary-aged kids kept coming up to check on the progress, running around the yellow tape.
"We start restoring power with the infrastructure. Hospitals, fire stations, 911 centers come first," said Duke Energy spokeswoman Peveeta Persaud, who was sweating at the scene. "Then, with the neighborhoods, we try to identify opportunities to put the most number of customers back on-line in the shortest amount of time."
By 2:30 p.m., the contractors had secured the last pole, the one beside the cedar tree, and replaced all the wires. A breeze ruffled the Spanish moss on the live oaks above. One bucket truck pulled to the end of the street, then another. Soon, crews carted away the orange cones.
"All right, we're done down here," foreman Clifton Underwood called to his crew. "Come on in for a headcount, and we can heat it up."
Seven men gathered around the front bucket truck. One pulled out a towering yellow stick. Three others were still walking the neighborhood, checking connections at each house. "We've got to make sure everyone's accounted for before we can close it," Proenza said.
Finally, the last guy returned to the truck, wiping his brow. "Okay, out of the line of fire!" shouted the foreman. Nine men stepped across the street, plugging their ears with their fingers, just in case. The last guy pushed the yellow stick past the top wire, four stories above his head, and flipped the switch.
Silence; nothing blew. Then, throughout the neighborhood, air conditioners began to hum. 3 p.m.: plenty of time to make dinner.
"Thank you!" shouted a woman driving by in a black BMW.
"You're our heroes!" yelled a man in a gray Honda Pilot.
The four kids ran into the street singing: "We love you so much! So much! So much!"
While Proenza's crew took off their hard hats, mopped their faces and gulped water, he stepped into a slice of shade and pulled out his phone. He hoped his wife had power by now, back home in Perry. He hoped his hotel in Innisbrook had A/C. He was hungry, hot, tired.
But there was still five hours of daylight. Still hundreds of thousands without electricity. "All right buddy, all set. Lines hot!" he told the dispatcher. "Where do you need us next?"
1.8M customers Duke Energy serves in Florida, spanning 35 counties
1.2M lost power in Irma
903,605 restored by noon Thursday.
10,000 tree trimmers, linemen and contractors Duke Energy hired for Florida
2,000 company employees in the field this week
3,000 poles to replace
950 miles of wire to string
1,100 transformers to replace
5 days to get everyone's power back on in Pinellas and Pasco counties
Source: Duke Energy