Hurricane Irma left South Florida sweltering in the throes of electricity envy

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Air conditioners hum on one side of Palmarito Street in Coral Gables but not the other, where strip poker by candlelight has lost its charm. Over on Toledo, the lights have blinked on in some houses, but most remain dark.

In Pinecrest, residents are hot and bothered. In Little Haiti, the powerless are hungry and thirsty.

All across Miami, electricity envy is swelling like piles of dirty laundry, spoiled food and amputated tree limbs. Six days after Hurricane Irma swept through and cut off power to 75 percent of South Florida, the restoration efforts of Florida Power & Light and visiting crews are not fast enough for a suffering, sweltering population.

“I’m very frustrated because it’s so spotty in our neighborhood,” said Janice Smith, who lives under the shredded tree canopy on Toledo.

Her neighbor, Marjorie Seldin, got power back on Wednesday.

“We’ve very spoiled, but I’m trying not to feel guilty,” said Seldin, who spent the first few days taking cold showers and fighting over her family’s sole battery-operated fan. “It went out again yesterday and I feared it was just a tease. Now I’m cleaning out my refrigerator.”

Gail Evans, who lives nearby on Escobar, said she is “disgusted” that the city of Coral Gables didn’t do a better job trimming trees that dragged down power lines. One droops across the street with crime-scene tape hanging from it like bunting. Extension cords running to a portable generator are taped to the pavement.

“I’m not jealous — yet,” Evans, 80, said of her neighbors on Palmarito Court who have regained the comforts of home. The rest of the neighbors are taking advantage of a swimming pool that an absent neighbor who evacuated has offered for cooling dips. “The silver lining is that we’ve had block barbeques and many friends have come by to check on me.”

What began on Sunday as an urban camping experience has degenerated into pure misery. A storm surge of seawater has been replaced by a storm surge of sweat. A couple of nights of Scrabble and canned beans was enough. Now, people are sleeping — fitfully — in their cars or with wet towels draped over sticky skin. September is typically Miami’s cruelest month for heat and humidity.

“I don’t know how you stand it here,” a tomato-red lineman from Detroit said Friday. “I’ll take four inches of snow in the [Upper Peninsula] over this sauna.”

FPL has stood by its pledge to restore power in southeast Florida by Sunday night. As of Friday afternoon, nearly 242,000 homes and businesses in Miami-Dade County did not have electricity — about 20 percent of FPL’s 1.1 customers. In Broward, 145,940 clients out of 933,300 were in the dark, and in Palm Beach, 85,110 of 739,000 were waiting. The utility has explained that some homes and buildings may have to wait longer depending on whether they are on a main, feeder or lateral line and depending on the damage to those lines.

But many folks complain they’ve seen no sign of the trucks — which are greeted like the cavalry when they do finally arrive.

“What really set me off was when I heard from a cousin in Cuba who had power restored in two days,” said Jackie Alvarez, who lives in South Miami next door to her 82-year-old mother, who has Alzheimer’s and relies on an electrical bed. “FPL promoted their plans for recovery, but it’s been worse than a third-world country. This was a Category 1 storm, not Hurricane Andrew when I didn’t have electricity for three weeks. I pleaded with them about my mother but I got the runaround.”

Rodolfo Pajares of Cutler Bay lost his cool days ago. He thinks there may be an FPL pecking order.

“Do they play favorites or do you need to be a member of a secret society?” said Pajares, weary of making Cuban coffee on his grill. “Our neighbors two blocks down got power on Tuesday. I pay taxes like everybody else. It is unacceptable that their preparation and execution is so sloppy.”

In Miami’s poorer communities, there are cries of discrimination. At a meeting in Little Haiti on Friday outside the Buena Vista Gardens apartment complex, nerves were sparking like those downed power lines. A few women began chanting, “We can’t take it anymore!”

“We feel abandoned because we have seen no one, no one at all,” said Joseph Jean Ferdy, who said the complex and surrounding area has no power. “We’ve thrown our food away. Our children can’t sleep. Will we go through another week of hell?”

The deaths of eight elderly residents at a Hollywood nursing home has heightened fears of heat-related emergencies. Residents also fear drinking their cloudy water.

Mildred de la Maza points to the small side yard where she and the five other relatives sharing her apartment sleep at night when they drag mattresses outside.

“We can’t drink the water, our food has rotted so all we eat is bread and we have no milk or formula for the baby,” de la Maza said. “My son has asthma. I started to get heat stroke today.”

No one can afford generators, nor could anyone afford to escape to hotels.

“Each time there is a disaster, our black, brown and immigrant communities seem to be the last to receive help,” said Andrea Mercado, executive director of the New Florida Majority. “Many of these neighborhoods are food deserts and that is magnified after a storm. It’s like these communities don’t matter.”

Mercado’s organization started the Irma Community Fund and is visiting eight low-income areas every day — Little Haiti, Little Havana, Overtown, Liberty City, Opa-locka, Allapattah, Perrine and Homestead — to hold pop-up barbeques, distribute water and knock on doors. They’ve found families that have barely eaten, homeless people who moved into a parking garage and an immobile woman with swollen legs confined to a chair for two days.

“The message from our government leaders and FEMA is: ‘You are forgotten,’” said Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami. “Miami is the most unequal city in the country. We need to make sure insufficient relief efforts don’t reinforce that.”

Because of the widespread power outages, many people are missing out on work and paychecks.

“Communities of color are always last on the list of priorities,” Bastien said. “These people are in dire straits.”

Smith is one of the Hurricane Andrew veterans who wear their days of survival without power like a badge of courage — 19 days, 33 days, 42 days. But after six nights, and too many games of Battleship, she’s anxious to see the light.

“We’re down to 84 powerless customers on an FPL ticket that started with more than 1,000,” she said. “I have hope. I don’t have AC, but I have hope.”


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