Wilma recovery effort lags behind Florida's expectations
The Associated Press
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Authorities raised Florida's death toll from Hurricane Wilma from five to 10 today and urged the storm's survivors to have patience as they endured long waits for food, water and other necessities.
Gov. Jeb Bush took responsibility today for frustrating delays at centers distributing supplies to storm victims, but he also said people who have waited in line for hours seeking relief should have done more to prepare for the storm.
"People had ample time to prepare. It isn't that hard to get 72 hours worth of food and water," said Bush, repeating the advice that officials had given days before Wilma blasted across southern Florida early Monday.
The 21st storm in the busiest Atlantic hurricane season on record, Wilma killed at least 12 people in Haiti, four in Mexico and one in Jamaica before hitting Florida. State emergency management director Craig Fugate said today that Florida's death toll was 10, up from the five deaths previously reported.
Bush spoke at a joint news conference with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA, roundly criticized for its response to Hurricane Katrina, was again a focus of frustration today as Floridians faced long waits for supplies that the mayor of Miami-Dade County warned were running out.
On Tuesday, trucks carrying the first wave of relief — food, ice and water — either arrived much later than local officials expected or didn't show up at all.
"I understand there are frustrations here," Chertoff said. "As the governor has acknowledged, we can't always get to people what we hope to get and as quickly as we hope to do it."
Bush accepted responsibility for not having distribution centers running smoothly within 24 hours, and promised to try to speed up distribution. His brother President Bush planned a Thursday visit.
At least one distribution site in Miami-Dade was out of supplies, and the other 10 were running low with material from FEMA, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez said.
Alvarez said it could be today night before the stocks are resupplied. "I cannot give you a timetable because, ladies and gentlemen, quite frankly, we don't control those assets."
Alvarez called the relief process "flawed," called for more control and oversight and said he was "frustrated, disappointed, angered" with the delivery of supplies.
Items Americans usually take for granted — a bag of ice, a fast-food burger, a gallon of gas — have taken hours of patience to get since Hurricane Wilma made its destructive sweep.
Nine hours after she got in line Tuesday at one designated relief-supply location, Fanie Aristil, 23, of North Miami wearily left for home with 28 pounds of ice and six liters of bottled water.
"All that time," Aristil said. "This is all we get?"
Police watched over the few gas stations that were open as a precaution in case motorists' tempers flared while they waited for up to five hours to buy fuel.
"I need gas for my generator so I can go to work and make some money," said Hector Vasquez, 36, who repairs windows. "This shouldn't be this difficult."
Florida Power & Light, the state's biggest utility, said Wilma affected more of its 4.3 million customers than any other natural disaster in the company's history. By today, service was restored to about 20 percent of the 3.2 million customers who lost service — but the company warned Floridians that total restoration may take weeks.
In Mexico, thousands of haggard tourists battled for airline and bus seats out of the country's hurricane-battered Caribbean resorts, but thousands more remained stranded today. Officials said about 22,000 foreign tourists remained in the area Tuesday, down from a peak of almost 40,000.
Many tourists were being bused 10 hours or more across hurricane-damaged roads to the airport in Merida, on the other side of the Yucatan Peninsula. Flights and hotels were booked there as well, but most found it an improvement over Cancun; one hotel owner said some guests started to cry because they had finally found a clean place with running water.
There were signs of progress today in Florida: More streets were cleared of debris, a few restaurants opened and domestic flights resumed at Miami International Airport. Even trash removal returned to some areas.
Getting needed goods, however, often was far from easy. Hundreds of people lined up outside one home-supply store, desperate for cleanup and other supplies. At a handful of fast-food restaurants open in the Miami area burgers were available — to those willing to endure two-hour waits.
The quantity of debris is daunting: Pieces of roofs, trees, signs, awnings, fences, billboards and pool screens were scattered across several counties, including the state's most populous region — the Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach area. Damage estimates ranged up to $10 billion.
Wilma was the strongest hurricane to strike Lauderdale since 1950. Wind of more than 100 mph blew windows out of high-rises, many built before Florida enacted tougher construction codes following Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
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