At this point, a day or two without power seems like just a minor inconvenience. Maybe some spoiled milk in the fridge. Or the frustration of a drained cellphone.
But much of eastern Florida hasn’t had electricity since last weekend. And parts of the state’s battered west coast might not get power for another 10 days.
The danger was exemplified Wednesday, when eight people died in Hollywood, Florida, after their nursing home lost air conditioning. The residents’ causes of death are being investigated.
“I’m afraid the death toll from Irma is not over yet,” said Craig Fugate, former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Fugate himself had no power Wednesday in his Gainesville home.
Electricity can literally be a lifeline, powering everything from hospitals to oxygen tanks.
So, what will 10 days without power look like? Here’s what to expect, and what to do about it:
Dangerous (even deadly) heat
The most devastated parts of Florida will endure temperatures in the 90s over the next few days. Combined with oppressive humidity and relentless mosquitoes, the situation will be miserable — if not deadly.
In Bradenton, “It’s over 100 degrees,” resident Alexis Davis said. The apartment she shares with her boyfriend and two roommates hasn’t had electricity since Sunday.
“We can’t stay in the apartment,” Davis said. “We’ve seen people sitting out in their car so that they have some air conditioning.”
For those who require oxygen tanks or refrigerated medication, the power outage can be especially dire.
“I have enough bottled oxygen to last several days,” said 91-year-old Philip Dennen. “But without power, we’ll be in a little trouble.”
What to do:
For the elderly or vulnerable, “Please go to a shelter or call 911,” said Rob Gould, chief communications officer for Florida Power & Light. “Please do not wait.”
Fugate said those needing refrigerated medication may be able to go to their local pharmacy, because many pharmacies have improved their use of generators and are able to return to business.
“Sending people home with (medicine in) Styrofoam coolers is one option,” he said.
For otherwise healthy residents, the Energy Education Council offers several tips on surviving the heat. Among them:
— Dress in loose, lightweight clothing and stay on the lowest level of your home.
— Use battery-powered fans.
— Close all drapes and blinds on the sunny side of your home.
“Fuel and communications is the greatest need,” said Mike Wallace, who rode out the storm on Big Pine Key, a Florida island decimated by Hurricane Irma.
While Wallace survived, many of the houses did not.
“We really need communications services, and food and fuel, desperately,” Wallace said. “There’s a lot of people here (who) are really suffering.”
But even if gas stations have fuel, no one can pump it if there’s no power.
What to do:
It’s important for residents to conserve fuel and not drive or fill up their tanks unnecessarily, Fugate said.
That can mean staying where they’ve been evacuated to, rather than returning home.
“If you’re in a safe place and you’re comfortable, sit tight,” Fugate said. “By giving yourself a couple of days for things to stabilize, you’re not dealing with traffic and are giving crews an opportunity to turn power back on.”
He also advised against hoarding gas.
“You don’t need to be filling up your gas tank if you have three-fourths of a tank, just because you don’t think there’ll be gas next week,” Fugate said. “You’ll have fuel in a week.”
No school indefinitely
The closure of schools — either due to damage or power outages — has myriad effects on children and their families, Fugate said.
Children aren’t learning. Staying at home means parents can’t work. And for low-income families, school is where children get nutritious meals.
“Getting schools open … is far more critical than most people realize,” said Fugate, a former director of Florida’s Emergency Management Division.
What to do:
Fugate said you don’t have to get kids back in their own schools to get them educated and back into their normal rhythm — an important step for their psychological recovery.
“You can use other schools,” he said. “What we learned when I worked for Gov. (Jeb) Bush was getting schools back to normal wasn’t the mission. Getting kids back in schools was.”
He said after Hurricane Charley in 2004, students from one high school that couldn’t open shared a campus with another high school.
Both schools’ students temporarily used half-day schedules; one group of students would go early in the morning, and the other would go later in the day.
Lethal danger from generators and live wires
Most hurricane-related deaths come after the storm, not from the storm itself, said Gould, the Florida Power & Light spokesman. And many of those deaths are linked to generators and downed electric lines.
At least one person has already died and five others were hospitalized in Miami-Dade County because of carbon monoxide poisoning from generators used indoors, local officials said.
What to do:
“Put the generator outside the garage,” Gould said. “Do not leave it inside. Do not run it near a window or door — that can be absolutely fatal, especially when you think about carbon monoxide poisoning.”
Also, plug appliances directly into the generator and not into the electrical box. Failing to do so can send electricity back through the power lines, “and that can be deadly for our crews,” Gould said.
With power outages come downed power lines. Don’t let your guard down just because the weather has improved.
“It’s nice outside right now,” Gould said. Residents often go outside, “don’t pay attention … and they step on a live wire — a downed line. And that can be fatal.”
Some Irma victims who are hourly employees told CNN they’re stressing about their next paycheck — especially those whose businesses still don’t have power.
“Food has been destroyed … restaurants don’t have power unless they have a generator,” said Davis, the Bradenton resident.
Davis is one of the luckier ones; the restaurant she works at in East Bradenton has had power restored.
But Fugate said many small businesses fail after natural disasters.
“If you work for a small business and that small business has been heavily impacted, sometimes those jobs don’t come back because the business doesn’t survive,” he said.
What to do:
Fugate said Irma victims in sudden financial crisis can seek disaster relief assistance.
And a variety of nonprofits and agencies are also offering free goods and services, such as free or discounted rental homes.
But the need for help is immense.
“There’s total devastation,” said Wallace, the Big Pine Key resident. “Things are moving, but guys, we need more help down here. Please.”