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Questions answered about Irma aftermath and cleanup

We're all still recovering from Hurricane Irma, and lots of people have questions about dealing with the aftermath. Here are some answers.

Traffic

I still see lots of traffic lights are out. Does that mean I can just ignore them?

No. At intersections where the stoplights aren't working, treat them like a four-way stop. Because Florida drivers apparently don't know how to maneuver through a four-way stop, here's a short reminder: Pull up to the line and stop. Look both ways for traffic. If there isn't any, proceed. If there are other cars at the intersection — this is crucial — then each one can proceed in the same order in which they arrived at the stop. If two cars arrive at the intersection at the same time, then the one to the right has the right of way. No matter what, though, pause and look both ways before you hit the gas.

Why didn't the power companies turn the traffic lights back on first before restoring power to people's houses and businesses?

Because that's not their responsibility. The stoplights are the responsibility of local governments, and they're fixing them as fast as they can.

Why are police standing around at some intersections where the stoplights are out?

They're directing traffic and guarding the generators from possible theft.

Why are the interstates still moving so slowly?

The Irma evacuation was the largest in the state's history, as some 6 million people fled to safety. Getting them all back home is taking a while, especially with gas stations still trying to get more fuel to cope with demand. Another potential wrinkle: Post-Irma flooding may require closing some I-75 bridges over North Florida's rivers. Keep an eye on the news to see what the state Department of Transportation decides to do.

When and where can I get gas?

There is enough gas coming into the state right now, thanks to fuel shipments that Port Tampa Bay and other ports around the state are receiving, according to AAA spokesman Josh Carrasco. The issue now is distribution. Fuel trucks are working to haul gas around the state. Carrasco said consumers should see a difference in a few days. There are websites and apps that can help you locate gas stations that are open. Try gasbuddy.com/app.

When will the price of gas come down?

Blame that on the other hurricane, Harvey. Refineries in Texas and Louisiana still aren't fully up and running because of that storm. Once they're going again, probably in the next few weeks, prices are expected to drop, AAA's Carrasco said.

I heard the president is coming down here today to see the damage for himself. Is he coming here?

No. He's headed to Fort Myers and Naples.

Cleanup

I piled up all the debris in my yard out by the curb, but nobody has come to get it yet. Why are they taking so long?

Be patient. Work crews from local government are going around to pick up the downed limbs and so forth, but there is quite a lot to pick up and it's going to take a while. If you can't wait, then you or someone you hire can haul it to a county-run brush site. Check your county's website for locations.

What day is my local government picking up the debris?

They will be picking it up on a lot of days. In Tampa, for instance, debris removal begins today and runs through Oct. 14.

I found a tree service guy to look at the tree that fell on my house, but he wants thousands of dollars for the work. I think he's overcharging me. Can he do that?

If you think someone is trying to gouge you on post-hurricane services, call the state Attorney General's Office at 1-866-9-NO-SCAM (966-7226). Price-gouging is illegal in Florida.

Should I go out and buy a chainsaw?

No. If you don't already know how to use one, now is not the time to learn. Often more people are injured or killed after a storm than during one, and improper use of a chainsaw rivals improper use of a generator as the cause of those injuries and deaths. As Dave Barry once pointed out, a chainsaw doesn't know the difference between a log and a leg.

Mail service

I haven't gotten any mail for days. Whatever happened to "neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet"?

The U.S. Postal Service believes its letter carriers should not risk their lives for no good reason, so it shut down service throughout most of Florida ahead of Irma. As of Wednesday, most of the state's postal routes were going back into service, except for in the Keys.

Schools

My kid is out of school all week. Will there be makeup days?

Yes, but none of the Tampa Bay school systems have figured out when that will be. Stay tuned.

Power

Is there any danger when the power comes back on?

Yes. Any heat-generating appliances, like a stove, hair dryer, iron, that were turned on at the time the power went out will turn on again when the power comes on and create a fire hazard if they're unattended. The solution: If your power is off and no one is going to be home, turn off the main breaker before you leave. Once power is restored, your home will be safe. When you get home and switch on the breaker, listen for any unusual sights or odors that could indicate an electrical problem. If something looks, sounds or smells suspicious, switch off the main breaker immediately and call 911. You may need to hire an electrician.

Is the food in my refrigerator okay?

It depends on how long the power was out. Refrigerated foods should be safe if the power is out for no more than four to six hours. Discard any food that has been above 40 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours and any food that has an unusual odor, color or texture. If it looks like the power will be out for more than six hours, transfer refrigerated foods to an insulated cooler filled with ice or frozen gel packs. Keep a thermometer in the cooler to be sure the food stays at 40 degrees or below. Otherwise, toss it. And by the way, tasting it to see if it's all right is a quick way to make yourself sick.

My area has been issued a "boil water" notice. What's that got to do with the loss of power?

When a water supply system loses power, it opens the door for contamination. Without power, the pressure in the water pipes drops, and the pipes can then siphon contamination backward into the system. That's why you need to boil your tap water. A pot of water that has been brought to a full rolling boil for one minute is enough to kill pathogens and make the water safe to consume. Of course, let the water return to room temperature before drinking it.

Claims

I'm not sure I have an insurance claim. Should I file one anyway?

Yes, according to the head of one of Florida's largest insurers. "File a claim. It won't count against you," Security First Insurance founder and president Locke Burt told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Even if a claim is fairly minor — a broken window, for instance — and won't exceed a policyholder's annual hurricane deductible, you should still report that damage, Burt said. Why? Because we're not to the end of the hurricane season yet. If there's another hurricane this year, then together your claims from both storms might top your deductible and then you could be reimbursed.

How soon can I get insurance money for my damage?

It depends on how fast you file your claim. Insurance companies generally handle them first come, first served, so get yours in as quickly as you can. But don't expect instant results, because claims adjusters are still dealing with Hurricane Harvey in Texas. Here's a financial toolkit for Irma victims from the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: bit.ly/2y3hMsl .

Am I eligible for federal assistance with my losses?

Maybe. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's Individuals and Households Program provides financial help (up to $33,300) for housing needs (temporary housing, repair and replacement construction) and personal needs (medical services, replacement of household appliances, other household items). If you've got power and Internet access, you can register for disaster assistance online at DisasterAssistance.gov. If you don't, then call 1-800-621-FEMA (3362). The toll-free telephone number will operate from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. EDT seven days a week until further notice.

I probably need a lawyer to deal with all the stuff that happened to me, but there's no way I can afford one. Am I out of luck?

No. A partnership among the Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division, the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has set up a hotline you can call to reach lawyers who can offer assistance with FEMA, insurance claims, dealing with contractors, replacing legal documents destroyed in the storm and other issues. Call them toll-free at 1-866-550-2929. Leave a message and they are supposed to return calls within two business days.

Times staff writers Mark Puente, Malena Carollo, Tony Marrero and Caitlin Johnston contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.

Questions answered about Irma aftermath and cleanup 09/13/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 13, 2017 8:35pm]
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