OPA-LOCKA, Fla. (AP) – Hundreds of truckloads of food, water, power generators and other supplies are being flown to Hurricane Wilma victims over a new “air bridge” ordered by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

After getting a firsthand look at long lines of cars waiting at gas stations and an earful of complaints about shortages from local officials, Chertoff ordered his department to step up shipments by keeping aircraft moving round the clock between south Florida and depots around the country. The same nonstop airlift capacity was developed after Hurricane Katrina in order to evacuate victims, he said.

“The idea is to just run aircraft in a circle, back-to-back,” Chertoff said. “They’ll fly the delivery, they’ll come back and get more – as long as it takes.”

“There is a huge demand for the delivery for a lot of these supplies, so it’s important that we keep the supply chain reloaded,” Chertoff said. He spoke in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press as he left suburban Miami, where he surveyed crumpled boats, shattered mobile homes and snaking lines of cars at fuel stations along Wilma’s path.

Military jets were overnighting supplies from Ft. Worth, Texas, to Homestead Air Force Base outside of Miami. Chertoff said Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency also would look to other locations nationwide for supplies.

Chertoff also said the government was working to find more power generators to send to south Florida, and called on oil companies to help distributors get fuel out of the ground and into gas tanks.

He asked storm victims to have patience. But he also underscored Wilma’s devastation as he urged people to be responsible for their own safety and prepare in advance of a disaster.

“I have to say, in honesty, patience will be required for everybody,” Chertoff said. “Under the best circumstances, even in the best planning, you still confront the physical reality of a destructive storm.”

Chertoff toured the Miami area by helicopter as part of a day in Florida overseeing the federal response to Wilma. Though he acknowledged delays in getting supplies to storm victims even two days after Wilma blew through the state, he said the demand for water, food, ice and gas simply outstripped what authorities had stockpiled.

Chertoff oversees FEMA, which was widely criticized for the government’s sluggish response to Katrina. He was greeted in Opa-locka by a gaggle of frustrated local officials who pleaded for water, ice, fuel and – most importantly – power.

“A lot of challenges,” said Chertoff, who mostly listened and offered few promises to the officials. “We’re all hurricaned out,” he said.

Power shortages were among the largest problems, said Miami-Dade County Commissioner Carlos Gimanez, who pressed Chertoff for more generators.

As many as 2.8 million power customers were still without electricity on Wednesday, said Gov. Jeb Bush.

“It’s not a matter of we lack fuel, we just can’t get it out of the ground because we lack power,” Gimanez said. “Grocery stores are closed because we don’t have power. The longer we go without power, the worse the situation gets.”

Was he satisfied with Chertoff’s response? “He said he’ll look into it,” Gimanez said. “That’s as good as I’m going to get. He’s not going to tell me there’s 10,000 generators on the way.”

In Tallahassee, where Chertoff began his swing through Florida, Gov. Bush defended FEMA’s performance.

“The emergency operations folks are doing their job, and they do it well here, irrespective of what people write,” Bush told Chertoff as the two toured the state’s emergency operations center, accompanied by an AP reporter. “I’ve got total confidence in that at the end of this, our reputations will be intact. … We’ve worked our asses off.”

Turning to the reporter, the governor said, “You can quote me on that.”

Bush said an estimated 4,000 storm evacuees remained in 31 shelters across the state. Distributing supplies to victims had been largely successful at scores of centers across the region, he said, but, “Where they didn’t work, we had supply but it wasn’t adequate. It was not adequate for the demand.”

Bush said “significant improvement” had been made over the last day.



On the Net:

Homeland Security Department: http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/


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