Floridians stand in line for help

7 dead, millions without power after Wilma

October 26, 2005|By JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MIAMI -- Officials in southeastern Florida struggled yesterday to restore power, clear roads and rush water and ice to residents unprepared for the damage inflicted by Hurricane Wilma.

A day after the unexpectedly fierce Category 3 storm blasted in from the west - killing seven people - close to 3.1 million Floridians still were without electric power, said Kristy Campbell, a spokeswoman for the state emergency operations center.

"I don't think anybody anticipated the damage we woke up to," Broward County Mayor Kristin Jacobs said. "It's truly unprecedented."

Wilma carved a path of destruction across southern Florida's Atlantic seaboard from Palm Beach County to the Florida Keys. Traffic lights lay smashed on the pavement or dangling precariously from overhead cables. Downed wires, poles and trees blocked streets.

While some flights resumed yesterday at Miami International, the region's two other major airports - Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International and Palm Beach International - remained closed.

In the greater Miami area, only 177 of 2,600 traffic lights were working. "What you have here with this storm is a lot of damage everywhere in the county," said Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez.

Wilma's winds, which gusted at more than 120 mph, ripped the roof off Erzulie Denis' three-bedroom North Miami home.

At midday yesterday, Denis joined about 3,000 people who were anxiously waiting in a shopping center parking lot for officials to pass out water and ice. She had spent the night in her car with her 14-year-old son, Schiler, who has asthma. Denis was afraid he would have an attack if he slept in their soggy home.

"I don't know what to do," said Denis, 34. Neither of her cell phones was working, an all-too common problem in the areas pummeled by Wilma. When she went to her local police department and a hospital to ask for assistance getting housing, Denis said, she was given more telephone numbers she couldn't call.

Denis had laid in hurricane supplies, she said, but the bread, potato chips and other foods had gotten waterlogged. "We don't have anything now," she said.

Throughout southeastern Florida, where the weather was sunny and pleasant yesterday, lines began forming as early as 9 a.m. for water and ice. In one spot in Broward County, emergency services spokesman Carl Fowler said, there were at least 2,000 cars, In many cases, the supplies had not arrived by late afternoon.

Deliveries to 15 distribution points in Broward County were delayed when the trucks couldn't be gassed up because there was no power to run the pumps, said Robert Lincoln, an official with the state Division of Emergency Management.

Voicing her frustration, Jacobs - a Democrat - accused the state government and Republican Gov. Jeb Bush of failing to meet their promises: "We can't get any answers from the state right now as to when those trucks are expected."

Water and ice deliveries also were tardy at some of the 11 distribution points opened in Miami-Dade County.

During a visit earlier in the day to Miami, Bush vowed that help was on the way. "My heart goes out to people that have lost a lot," he said, "and they can be rest assured that the state government and the federal government will be working to provide support."

The governor's brother, President Bush - who plans to travel to Florida tomorrow - also promised swift assistance. "There are a lot of people without power, and that's obviously a priority right now," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "We're working to support the state of the Florida's efforts, and they were well prepared for this."

Some Floridians disagreed with that assessment. "To get water, you have to stand five hours in the hot sun. That's ridiculous," said Jackie Penha, 30, a bank employee among those waiting in the parking lot of a North Miami Beach shopping center.

One private company, Risk Management Solutions, estimated that Wilma - the seventh hurricane to make landfall in Florida in 15 months - caused $6 billion to $10 billion in property damage.

John-Thor Dahlburg writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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