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In St. Pete, Duke Energy president apologizes for failing to restore power as quickly as promised

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Late last week, Duke Energy Florida promised power-deprived residents in Pinellas County that with a few exceptions, everyone who had lost electricity due to Hurricane Irma would have it restored by midnight Friday.

That didn’t happen.

“We were hoping that we could push really hard and get everybody’s power up sooner. We were not able to accomplish that due to the debris and some other issues that we ran into,” Duke Energy President Harry Sideris said Tuesday afternoon at a news conference held near Maximo Park in South St. Petersburg.

After Duke failed to get everyone back online Friday night, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman took to his Facebook page to express that he was “extremely disappointed” Duke failed to live up to its promise. He went back Sunday on social media to ask residents still without power what part of town they lived in so that he could direct Duke to send repair crews to those areas.

“I’m sure the mayor was getting a lot of frustrating calls, as was I,” Sideris said. “Power is such a vital piece of everybody’s life, and when it’s 93 degrees and you don’t have air conditioning you get really frustrated and I understand that.”

Sideris’ original prediction as Irma approached Florida was that it would probably knock out power to approximately 1 million of the 1.4 million customers it has in 35 Florida counties, and that it would take a week for most people to get their power restored. Although that was the case, Sideris now says there were unforeseen issues that made it harder than anticipated for their work crews to restore power.

Among those issues were earlier-constructed homes in St. Petersburg with power lines set up in backyards. Because those trucks couldn’t get back there, linemen needed to climb poles, which took longer than anticipated, Sideris said.

There was also a large IT failure that prevented Duke from being able to proactively keep their customers informed about when they would get their electricity restored. Sideris said that would be something Duke Energy would closely examine when doing their post-analysis of how they handled the storm.

Clearwater Republican state Senator and GOP gubernatorial candidate Jack Latvala announced Tuesday that not only will he no longer accept campaign contributions from investor-owned utilities like Duke in the future, but also says the energy giant is better off using some of the $3 million that they’ve already contributed to political candidates towards energy grid upgrades instead.

Future plans for Duke Energy do include putting power lines underground in certain strategically focused areas. Automated meters will also be introduced, which can automatically determine when people’s power goes out, precluding the customer from having to proactively contact the company.

Although Kriseman says it’s too early to begin assessing all of the lessons learned from Hurricane Irma, he did give himself and his staff a thumbs up for creating a “street team” that went door to door to inform residents of the latest developments, since many were without access to news because of the lack of power.

The press conference took place at one of the city’s debris processing sites next to Maximo Park. Removal of debris began last weekend and will continue for weeks to come. The mayor also announced three city-sponsored disaster relief centers that will be open from noon to 7 p.m. at the Enoch Davis Center, the Sunshine Center and the West St. Pete Community Library.

There’s also a new website – StPeteRecovers.com – to get comprehensive coverage regarding the recovery from Irma in the city.

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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