Harry Liogghio, who lives outside Detroit, was planning to visit his aunt in Punta Gorda this winter.
He ended up in Florida much sooner than that.
On a hot Friday afternoon, Liogghio was supervising 12 linemen from Detroit-based utility DTE Energy as they brought power back to the Miami neighborhood of Golden Pines. The workers had spent three nights on cots at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, watching Hurricane Irma roll through Saturday and Sunday. Now, they were working 16-hour days, surviving on pizza and subs from Costco. And water. Lots and lots of water.
Liogghio knew he would still be in Florida this Sunday, his 23rd wedding anniversary with his wife, Jill, in the Detroit suburb of Clark Lake.
It didn’t matter. His crew was helping a badly damaged community recover. And they were having fun.
“It never gets old in the bucket,” said Liogghio, pointing to a worker high on the arm of a truck repairing a power line. “Linemen like to be in the air.”
Liogghio and his crew are part of a massive out-of-state relief effort recruited to turn the lights back on after Irma knocked out power for 6.7 million homes and businesses in Florida, a record. Power companies from 29 states — from Arkansas to California to Massachusetts — sent help. DTE sent 250 trucks to Florida. Among those crews, 120 linemen trekked more than 1,300 miles to Miami-Dade County to fix broken poles and downed wires, according to company spokesman David Lingholm. The trip took three days.
For residents like Vilma Urquiza, the Detroit trucks were a godsend, although they were still working to get the electricity back Friday around 3 p.m. Her house lost power early Sunday. She is recovering from back surgery and ran out of antibiotics after the storm. Piles of branches stacked waist-high lined the streets around her home, along with a junked trampoline left on the curb.
Urquiza said she passed the sweltering hours “staring at the daylight until it became nighttime.” On Tuesday, her pug, Bea, still spry at 7 years old, passed out from the heat.
“We put her in a tub with cold water and wrapped her in a towel,” she said. Bea recovered.
Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, wolfing down a Wendy’s hamburger, was in the neighborhood, too.
When the trucks started rolling into Miami earlier in the week, Russell said, “people were cheering for them … like the boys coming home from war.”
Now, frustration is building as power is slowly brought back to those who suffered without it the longest, Russell said. Residents gathered in Little Haiti Friday afternoon to demand the swift return of their lights and air conditioning. In Homestead, organizers urged farmworkers who are also without power to air their grievances.
In Russell’s district, he said, the dense tree canopy of south Coconut Grove had fallen on power lines and slowed repairs.
FPL at first said it would return power to South Florida by Sunday. Russell called that a “bold estimate”on Friday, based on the damage he’s seen.
“That’s Babe Ruth pointing to the fence and calling his shot,” Russell said.
It was a swing and miss. Late Friday, FPL announced that people in South Dade wouldn’t get their power back until Tuesday night.
Peter Robbins, an FPL spokesman, said the utility had 21,500 workers making repairs in its service territory. Roughly 2,000 are FPL employees. The rest are in-state contractors, joined by linemen in from around the nation.
The work hasn’t been without costs. One DTE Energy lineman had his foot run over and required immediate surgery, Liogghio said. (The company is investigating the accident.)
Meanwhile, the lights are switching back on.
Asked if she had electricity again, one resident thanked a higher power.
“Lord Jesus,” she exclaimed, “yes, we do.”