Bush tours storm-weary South Florida

Visit comes as local governments seek fuel and residents line up for food and water


FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- Offering words of encouragement and the promise of "ships coming in" with gas, President Bush toured fuel-thirsty South Florida yesterday, meeting with local officials and a storm-stunned public as the area lurched uncertainly toward recovery.

"Soon, more and more houses will have their electricity back on and life will get back to normal," Bush told a crowd of nearly 100 waiting at a lunch distribution center in Pompano Beach. "In the meantime, the federal government, working with the state and local government, is responding as best as we possibly can."

The presidential visit, lasting about three hours and including a stop at the National Hurricane Center west of Miami, came as local governments struggled to cope with dwindling fuel supplies, and weary residents waited in seemingly endless lines for water, food, ice and gas. Earlier yesterday, one man died and nine others, including three firefighters, were hospitalized from carbon monoxide fumes spewed by a generator in a Deerfield Beach home.

While promising fresh supplies of ship-borne fuel, Bush acknowledged the area's problem wasn't a lack of gasoline, but rather the electrical power to pump it. "I know people are frustrated because they don't have power on yet," he said, sweating through a gray shirt. "Things don't happen instantly. But things are happening."

The president's words came as cities were running short on gas. Supplies were becoming critical for police, nursing homes and hospitals. Sewage lift stations also were low on power, and teams scrambled to hook up generators from station to station to prevent sewage from backing up into toilets and bathtubs.

But more homes and businesses were regaining electricity. Only 1.8 million remained without power as opposed to 3.2 million just after Hurricane Wilma's passage. In Broward, about 700,000 had no electricity, about 600,000 in Miami-Dade County, and about 500,000 in Palm Beach County. Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport reopened yesterday, and Port Everglades began receiving freighters.

Officials cautioned residents about removing flammable items from stovetops or other heat-producing appliances before the power comes back on. In Coral Springs, for example, firefighters handled at least eight fires sparked by appliances.

During his visit, Bush was accompanied by his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, in a 16-vehicle motorcade to the First Baptist Church in one of Pompano Beach's poorest neighborhoods. Large tents had been erected for food distribution, and Bush was greeted with cheers by people lined up for a free lunch of pulled pork and potatoes. During about 40 minutes of working the crowd, he shook hands, hugged people, posed for pictures and signed autographs.

"It's an amazing spirit after a disaster. And that spirit is a spirit of people willing to give up their time," Bush told the crowd.

"I understand his visit was political, but it lifts everybody's spirits," said high school teacher Concepcion Ledezma of Pompano Beach.

"We need that kind of support," said Daniela Innocent of Deerfield Beach. "That makes us feel like we're important to him. We really appreciate that."

Broward County Mayor Kristin Jacobs said she emphasized to the president and his brother the area's need for fuel and generators. She said both Bushes assured her they would "rattle the cages" and that the government would send 200 generators to Broward by today.

Jacobs said she also asked the president and governor to push oil companies to supply their gas stations with generators. "If anyone can put pressure on oil companies to get generators on site, it's these two," she said.

The generators sent by the government will be used mostly for sewage lift stations and to power key intersections, the county mayor said.

Without the power to increase water pressure at lift stations, sewage backed up in three cities yesterday: Fort Lauderdale, Plantation and Tamarac. Workers were rotating generators among the affected stations, and officials urged residents to conserve water by not washing houses or cars or using dishwashers.

Robert Nolin and Jean-Paul Renaud write for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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