Wilma-ravaged Floridians scramble for ice, petrol

By Jim Loney

MIAMI - Floridians took cold showers and lined up for gas, water, ice and money as power crews worked to restore electricity to 5 million people two days after Hurricane Wilma hit Florida's most populous region, killing 10 people.

With most traffic lights out and residents complaining of long lines for emergency water and ice, petrol and groceries, life for many from Miami to West Palm Beach was a tedious wait for basics.

"The next couple of days are not going to be easy, not that the last couple of days have been easy," said Senator Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican. "There is no way of making what occurred go away overnight."

Wilma killed 10 people in Florida, several of them when trees, roofs and glass fell on them, and one in the Bahamas after a damaging trek through the Caribbean, where 17 people died in Haiti and Mexico.

Risk analysts have estimated the storm's damage in Florida at up to US$10 billion ($14 billion), which would rank it among the top 10 most-expensive storms to hit the United States.

Fueled by unusually warm sea temperatures, the Atlantic hurricane season has been a record-breaker, with 22 tropical storms or hurricanes, besting the old record of 21 set in 1933.

This year was also marked by the most intense Atlantic storms ever recorded, including Hurricane Katrina, which in August burst the levees protecting New Orleans and flooded the city. Katrina killed more than 1,200 people and caused more than US$30 billion in damage, probably the costliest natural disaster in US history.

Throughout south Florida, lines stretched for hundreds of metres at open service stations and people clustered at ATMs, grocery stores and shops that showed any signs of opening.

Most local governments and courts were still closed but garbage trucks trolled through the streets picking up trash and storm debris.

Truck convoys carried electrical company workers who fixed power poles and replaced downed lines. Tree trimmers hacked up fallen branches.

South Florida had plenty of fuel, but little electricity to pump it from the ground. Florida Power & Light said it had restored electricity to 647,000 of the 3.2 million customers who lost it. That left more than 2.5 million customers, or 5 million people, without lights, refrigeration and air conditioning.

Many south Florida towns and cities were under "boil-water" orders because of possibly contaminated water supplies.

But officials in Miami-Dade County said its water was safe and seemed frustrated with people who grumbled that bottled water was slow to arrive. "Ladies and gentlemen, if you need water, just turn your faucet on," said Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez.

Wilma caused as much as US$1 billion in damage to Florida farms, with sugar cane, citrus fruit and winter vegetable crops hard hit, state agriculture officials said.

Amid the chaos, though, there were signs that south Florida was slowly putting itself back together. Miami International and Palm Beach International airports were open.

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport was still closed to major commercial traffic, but some small planes were landing, a spokeswoman said.


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