After the hurricane: Irma left millions in the dark for weeks

24 Oct 2017 - 16:45

In the wake of hurricane Irma, millions of people were left without power for days or even weeks. Across the Caribbean and from Florida up to as far as Georgia, North and South Carolina, a record breaking number of 17 million people, at its peak, had to survive in the heat without any electricity. They had no chance to re-open their business, no refrigerators to keep food and medicine cold, no light, no internet to communicate or stay informed. In Florida, eight people even lost their lives because the nursing home they were staying in, couldn’t manage the power loss.


Saving lives is about priorities


In the weeks after the storm, US utilities were able to return millions of citizens to electricity across the Southeast. But for some people, the power outage lasted weeks. And weeks, and weeks. Unfortunately, populations most in need of attention - the elderly, the disabled and low-income populations, weren’t always prioritised. The order in which people get returned to power can have life-threatening consequence, so it demands coordination between utilities and local governments. But that simply didn’t happen.


What caused the outages?


Severe storms can cause damage to the electricity system in many ways. High winds, trees and flying debris take down power lines, while areas with transformers, buried power lines and even power plants can get flood for days. An outage along any part of the system, can take down the entire line.


Following the catastrophic 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, the Florida utilities invested $3 billion in storm security. Nevertheless, a staggering 4.45 million out of 4.9 million of their customers were left in the dark. So there’s still a lot of work to be done, after the restoration process is over.


Can we do better, or should we just accept this?


Hurricane Irma has raised a lot of questions on storm preparedness, in a world that is dealing with global warming. On the one hand, it’s impossible to perfectly protect our electricity infrastructure against all possible power outage threats. We have to accept that such a large storm will always cause power outages. But at the same time, we know that long power outages can have catastrophic consequences for vulnerable populations. We simply cannot accept that lives will be lost because the power stayed out.