FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – No power, no gas, no water – and for many, no help.

South Floridians began to comprehend the long-term effects of Hurricane Wilma on Tuesday, as it became increasingly clear that residents could spend the next few days, if not weeks, waiting in lines for basic supplies, coveting working showers and toilets, and in many cases, kicking themselves for underestimating the damage a Category 2 storm could bring.

Although state officials had bragged about their readiness for Wilma, as of late Tuesday afternoon no water or ice had arrived at any of the Broward County distribution centers, where state aide had been promised by noon. Palm Beach County and Miami-Dade County centers also reported problems. As a result, tensions ran high and some fights broke out as residents complained help was not coming quickly enough.

“Everybody wants everything yesterday,” said Paul Ready of Oakland Park, who began trolling for water and ice early Tuesday but found a local grocery store already picked clean.

For the entire state, the scope of damage was stunning.

Preliminary estimates, based on a series of computer models, put it at $6 billion to $10 billion, said Sam Miller of the Florida Insurance Council.

That makes Wilma the most damaging storm of the four that hit Florida this year.

Florida Power & Light said it had restored service to more than a half-million people, but more than 6 million remained without electricity in 18 Florida counties Tuesday. Power & Light. On the East Coast, the blackout extended from Key West to parts of Brevard County, east of Orlando – a distance of roughly 400 miles.

Officials are still estimating it could take weeks to get South Florida up and running.

In Miami-Dade, just 18 of the county’s 2,600 traffic lights were working Tuesday morning, county Mayor Carlos Alvarez said. In Broward, all 1,500 traffic lights were out.

Emergency officials in the two counties warned residents to stay off the roads, and curfews remained in effect in both.

Adding to the frustration in South Florida was the fact that it had not been declared eligible for federal assistance as of Tuesday, a status granted Monday to Collier, Lee and Monroe counties on the west coast.

FEMA officials who visited West Palm Beach, Miami and Key West with Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday said the destruction was worse than they expected and hope to convince Washington to provide individual assistance grants to help residents cover their losses.

“The damage is extensive,” Bush said.

Across the region, people went into scavenger-mode, descending on those few sources of water, food and gas they could find. Most ignored pleas from government officials to stay off roads, still full of debris and without working traffic lights. As a result, traffic added to clogged conditions.

The source of the distribution centers problems boiled down to lack of communication and fuel. The state had trouble coordinating with counties because of spotty phone service. They also didn’t have enough fuel for the trucks delivering supplies.

So, instead of sending trucks loaded with supplies to the distribution sites, the state sent them to the fairgrounds for refueling.

“The fuel delivery wasn’t at the fairgrounds,” said Palm Beach County Administrator Bob Weisman.

By the time the state refueled, it was too late. Broward got virtually nothing and only half of the centers in Palm Beach were able to open. Those centers that were open quickly ran out of water and ice and had to turn people away.

In Miami, Julio Sanchez stood on the side of the street watching a scene in disbelief – a crowd arguing in front of the Orange Bowl, one of 11 distribution sites in Miami-Dade, where many waited in line hours for ice and water.

“This is incredible. I just cannot believe it,” said Sanchez, 47. “I’ve seen this before. Miami officials said they are prepared, but they are not. Everything is a lie. We got all this technology. We’ve gone to the moon, but they (officials) cannot have their little act together.”

At 11 a.m., Bush, along with local and federal officials, gathered at the Miami-Dade Emergency Operations Center where they urged residents to be patient as the relief effort continues.

“Tomorrow is going to be a better than today,” Bush said. “My heart goes out to people who lost a lot, but rest assure that the federal and state government will help.”

His brother, President Bush, plans to travel to Florida on Thursday.

In the meantime, incidents of price gouging began to appear, including two men selling generators in an Aventura parking lot.

“They are gouging me – $1,600 for a $700 generator,” complained Aventura resident Jorge Linkewer, who bought the device despite the high price. “My kids have medication that needs to be refrigerated.”

There were also six reports of looting in Broward County overnight Monday, which included one arrest in North Lauderdale, a law enforcement spokesperson said.

Officials in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties announced schools would be closed throughout the week. Statewide, twelve of Florida’s 67 school districts were closed Tuesday.

Both the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International and Palm Beach International airports remained closed Tuesday due to damage and lack of power.

Miami International Airport spokeswoman Trenae Floyd said the first commercial flight in more than a day was scheduled to arrive at 5 p.m. Tuesday. The airport will have limited commercial and cargo operations from a single concourse as repairs take place to damaged roofs, fences and loading bridges, she said.

American Airlines, which has a large hub in Miami, planned no flights until 5 a.m. Wednesday, with the arrival of flights from South America, spokeswoman Minnette Velez said. Domestic travel wouldn’t begin until about 10 a.m.

The U.S. Coast Guard opened the Port of Miami to vessel traffic during daylight hours only and to vessels with a draft of 32 feet or less.

The Port of Palm Beach was also opened to daylight only vessel operations. Port Everglades and the Miami River remain closed as does the Port of Key West. Port Canaveral is open with restrictions. Vessels may transit during daylight hours only and may not draft more than 34 feet. During high tide drafts of 38 feet will be permitted.

Some Broward and Palm Beach hospitals had roof damage and water leaks that forced them to shuttle patients to other units or even to other hospitals.

Although most medical facilities are running on emergency generators, logistical problems with power outages, lack of water and the like prompted many hospitals to shorten or cancel visiting hours, as well cancel elective surgeries, outpatient locations and community programs.

Emergency rooms were crowded with people injured during post-storm cleanup, and people suffering flare-ups of chronic illnesses, including heart patients needing care, diabetics needing insulin and kidney-dialysis patients needing treatment.

Health officials warned people to be careful about especially trying to salvage food in nonworking refrigerators.

“People should be careful about the food they eat or they can get very sick,” said Jamie Oberweger, a spokeswoman for Boca Raton Community Hospital.

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Services contributed to this report.


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