After Irma: Impact and Size of Power Outages

Screenshot of power outages in Florida, afternoon of Sep. 12, 2017. The dark red shaded areas in central and southern Florida indicate more customers without power, while the green areas in the western panhandle indicate nearly no outages. (floridadisaster.org)

In the wake of Hurricane Irma, millions of Americans in the Southeast lost power to their homes and businesses.

The lights are out, but what else is out of service? Here are a few key features of modern life that we depend on that rely on electricity.

Air conditioning. It’s still summer and the sweltering temperatures will make it hard on the elderly and the ill, in addition to being uncomfortable for the young and the healthy.

Water pumps and sump pumps. For homes using well water, there won’t be fresh water without the pump. Sump pumps that take away storm water will also be out.

Refrigerators and freezers. The food inside will spoil eventually.

Cell phone chargers. The cordless phone is a modern miracle, but it needs to be plugged in to a power source occasionally to keep working.

Internet connections. Even if the service provider may be functioning, without the in-home modem, router, or cable box powered up, you won’t have a connection to the internet.

Roughly 16 million people in Florida and Georgia lost their power due to the rain and winds. Knowing the precise number of people without electricity is not possible, since utility companies can estimate only the number of customers that lost power. A customer is a household or business, and the companies don’t know how many individual people are included.

It is clearly a major power outage, but not the biggest in history.

In the biggest outage in American history, 55 million lost their electricity in the Northeast and Canada in August 2003. The next largest had 30 million people losing power in November 1965, also in the Northeast and Canada.

The most recent outage of a similar magnitude occurred in the wake of Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. About 8 million people lost power in the Northeast. The explosion of a substation, much viewed on social media, kept thousands of Manhattan residents and businesses in the dark for five days.