Always looking forward to ways to help its customers, Gulf Power’s innovation team built a solar-powered charging trailer, “Power to Go,” just in time for the start of hurricane season this year.

Shaun Gunter helps Trudy Johnston of Coral Gables charge her cell phone at Pensacola Bay Center, where she and her husband, Curtis, found shelter out of the path of Hurricane Irma.

Equipped with charging ports for smartphones and tablets, plus multiple television screens, Gulf Power planned to take the trailer to areas hit by major storms so customers could charge up their phones during major power outages. At the same time, customers could catch up on local news and weather and view a power outage map to monitor restoration progress.

When the mega-sized Hurricane Irma rolled over most of the state of Florida, sending evacuees fleeing out of harm’s way to Northwest Florida, Gulf Power saw an unexpected need for the trailer. It was set up at the Pensacola Bay Center so weary evacuees, some who had traveled from Miami, Tampa and points in between, could charge up their phones.

“Some of them left their homes in such a hurry, they forgot their chargers,” said Shaun Gunter, Gulf Power’s Renewable Market specialist, who helped build the charging trailer and manned it at the Bay Center. “People were desperate to access their contacts in their phones, which they couldn’t recall by memory.”

The charging station has been used at community events. But testing it out for Irma helped reveal some ways to improve the free service for Gulf Power customers. “We learned some things like people need to charge a variety of things besides cell phones,” Gunter said. “And we need a wider variety of charging adapters for people with older phones.”

Gunter went above and beyond to help with the unexpected demand for adapters for a variety of devices that evacuees routinely use during their everyday life. He dug into his stash of charging adapters he’s collected over the years and searched for other hard-to-find adapters at a few local electronics vendors.

“I found chargers that would help with blood sugar monitors, portable car GPS units, wireless headphones and older flip-phones,” he said. “It was important because you can’t just go out and buy these chargers at Walmart.”

Gunter was especially touched by an elderly man, Tom, who evacuated alone from Tampa. He had a Jitterbug phone made for senior citizens with a dead battery and was desperate to get it charged up so he could call family.

He said it made his day to get it charged up,” Gunter said. “I just gave him the charging adapter I found for him. He would still need it after we mobilized the trailer to another location.”

Danny and Tracey Ross of Fort Lauderdale were relieved to be able to charge their phones at the Power to Go charging trailer at the Pensacola Bay Center. They were among the many Hurricane Irma evacuees who fled to Pensacola without their chargers.

Danny and Tracey Ross of Fort Lauderdale were among those who fled their home without a charger. While charging their phones at the Power to Go charging trailer, Danny Ross recounted how they meandered through the state trying to get out of harms’ way and find gas along the way. “We were trying to find a place to stop … the rest areas had a thousand cars,” he said. “We came to Pensacola.”

Tracey Ross said they found the shelter at the Bay Center while hunting for a Starbucks, and when they saw the charging trailer, they were relieved. “We were glued to the televisions catching up on information about the storm and charging our phones,” she said. “If we didn’t have the chargers, we would have had no way to contact our family.”

Demand from the evacuees also underscored how great the demand is for smaller, portable charging stations that could be easily moved around. So Gulf Power collected portable charging stations it uses for special events like the annual Economic Symposium and partnered with the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, a minor league baseball team, to borrow portable charging stations that were installed at the stadium to take to both the Pensacola Bay Center and a shelter in Marianna, on the eastern edge of our service area. On a recent pass through the halls of the Pensacola shelter, it was clear by the number of phones plugged-in the need was great.

“We got involved because we were trying to support evacuees as best as we could and make their stay in Northwest Florida as stress-free as possible,” said Verdell Hawkins, Gulf Power Community Relations director. “The American Red Cross said the basic needs for the shelters were met, but we could provide comfort and recreation.”

In addition to the charging stations, Gulf Power also donated board games and playing cards for the more than 400 evacuees who took refuge at the two shelters to use.

This game, Corner 4, among the board games and playing cards Gulf Power provided the American Red Cross to provide activities for evacuees, was a big hit with this toddler. His family evacuated to Pensacola Bay Center from Clearwater, Florida.

The games were a hit, Hawkins said. On Monday, a mother from Clearwater was keeping her toddler entertained and helping him learn to count with a game called Connect 4, while other families were passing time by huddling in circles playing card games.

Gunter also realized that evacuees needed information from their hometowns. So instead of posting Gulf Power’s outage map on one of the TV monitors, as he would for our customers in the event of a storm, he pulled up outage maps for central and south Florida utilities, such as Tampa Electric and Florida Power & Light. He also helped evacuees access road condition information and live traffic cameras from Florida Department of Transportation so they could make travel plans home.

“I showed them how to sign up to get email and text alerts from their utility, so they could find out when their power is restored,” said Gunter “Many of them didn’t even know they could do that.”