As Americans begin to assess Hurricane Irma’s devastation, it’s clear the storm has caused one of the largest natural disaster-related power outages in U.S. history.
Irma isn’t through punishing the nation’s southeast, so where exactly it stacks up among power outages is yet to be determined. But the country has already seen enough to know Irma-related blackouts are far worse than outages caused by previous hurricanes that slammed into Florida.
In 1992, Hurricane Andrew knocked out power to around 1.4 million people. In 2005, Hurricane Wilma cut off electricity to 3.2 million Florida Power and Light customers, the largest outage in the company’s history up to that point. On Monday, the CEO of that company, Eric Silagy, said Irma had crushed that record.
The storm reportedly knocked out power to 4.5 million of the company’s 4.9 million customers. Silagy estimated that over half the state’s population is without power, which would total more than 10 million. On Monday, Reuters estimated 7.3 million homes and businesses across multiple southeastern states had no electricity. In Georgia alone, around 1 million people are without power.
That makes it a power outage of rare scope.
Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, damaged coastlines up the eastern shore of the U.S. and cut power to 8.2 million households in 17 states.
On the night of July 13, 1977, as New York City residents sweltered in the middle of a heat wave, well-placed lightning strikes sliced off power to 9 million people for around 25 hours.
Such blackouts aren’t just an east coast phenomenon. On Aug. 10, 1996, three northwestern power lines drooped into the tops of trees, fizzed out, and cut power to around 7.5 million people in 14 states as well as parts of Canada and Mexico [PDF]. Some lost power for just a few minutes, while others went without electricity for nine hours.
Irma has a chance to top all of these, though it’s unlikely to pass two of the nation’s worst outages, both of which were helped along by human failings.
Most of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island lost electricity on Nov. 9, 1965 [PDF], when a power line went down and the remaining lines couldn’t handle the extra flow. The result was a domino effect that blacked out much of the northeast and parts of Canada, affecting 30 million people and trapping 800,000 commuters, tourists, and residents in the subways of New York City.
The mass-outage on Aug. 14, 2003 blew out power to around 66 percent more people, totaling about 50 million. Here again, an overheated power line drooped into tree branches, this time in Ohio. Operators might’ve stopped the coming outage cascade right there, but the emergency alarm system failed as other lines began to sag. Soon, the outages rolled on toward the largest blackout in the history of North America, leading to the deaths of of 11 people and damages of around $6 billion.
About 1 million of Florida Power and Light’s affected customers have their power back, leaving around 3.5 million still without electricity. The company reportedly doesn’t know when its employees will be able to restore power to Floridians.
“We’ve never had that many outages, and I don’t think any utility in the country ever has,” Silagy said on Monday, according to Reuters. “It is by far and away the largest in the history of our company.”