S. Florida could stay in the dark for weeks

Thousands could get service restored today, but some areas may be powerless well into November.

Published October 26, 2005

MIAMI - Utility crews struggled Tuesday to restore electricity to more than 6-million people left powerless by Hurricane Wilma as thousands lined up for hours to get gas, ice, water and other scarce necessities.

Although Wilma was far from the most powerful storm ever to hit the United States, the Category 3 hurricane caused the largest power outage ever suffered by a U.S. utility during a single weather event, according to the Edison Electric Institute, a Washington trade group.

"We need to get our lights back on so we can get our lives back together and get to work," said Mose Hill, 52, of Miami, as he lined up near the Orange Bowl for ice and water.

Wilma's widespread blackout produced a series of ripple effects: School officials in four counties announced their schools would remain closed the rest of the week. Finding a gas station with working pumps became a major challenge. Relief efforts were slowed by traffic snarls created by missing and malfunctioning traffic signals and a lack of phone service.

A day after Gov. Jeb Bush praised the state's quick response to Wilma - and criticized Louisiana officials for dropping the ball after Hurricane Katrina - there were signs the recovery was not running smoothly.

Thousands of people waited in line, some reportedly for more than 10 hours, at a Wal-Mart in North Miami for relief supplies that didn't arrive until dusk. At Dania Beach City Hall, more than 100 people waited in line for ice and water that was supposed to arrive at 9 a.m. but never came.

"Waiting six hours to get one bag of ice and six bottles of water is not a good thing," Alberto Martinez said outside Miami's Orange Bowl.

State officials defended their efforts, saying they were doing the best they could.

"Is it ever going to be perfect? Hell, no. Are we going to work to make it better tomorrow? Hell, yes," said Craig Fugate, the state's top emergency management expert.

Barely 24 hours after Wilma exited the state, Fugate said, hundreds of semitrailer trucks reached the distribution points in the damaged counties. He ticked off the numbers: 152 trucks of water, 142 trucks of ice, 71 trucks carrying food.

But some of the trucks were late, misdirected or lost, Fugate said. " "Was it perfect today? No. That's why they call them disasters," he said.

State officials vowed to improve the operation.

"Tomorrow's going to be better than today," Bush said.

* * *

The startling number of outages caused by Wilma was primarily due to the storm's size and that the more destructive southern side of the storm struck South Florida's densely developed population centers.

Flying debris - which wasn't a major factor in Katrina - contributed to the shutdown of about 240 substations, mostly in South Florida.

As of late Tuesday, Florida Power & Light, which provides electricity across much of the state's peninsula, had restored power to nearly 300,000 customers. The utility - the state's largest - expects to be able today to turn on the lights for virtually all of its customers in Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte and De Soto counties, as well as northern Brevard County.

But in the rest of the utility's 35-county service territory, which includes Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, FPL executives say they probably will be unable to restore power to 95 percent of their customers until Nov. 15.

That's better than the 34 days it took to restore power to the 1.5-million customers who lost it during Hurricane Andrew in 1992, utility spokesman Bill Swank said. Turning the lights back on after Hurricane Charley last year took 13 days.

Power was restored before dawn Tuesday to some areas with underground power lines. Among those fortunate few were condominium residents on the eastern side of Key Biscayne.

A utility crew said it would be several days before power was restored to residents on the west side of the key, though, because the single family homes there still rely on overhead lines that had been knocked down.

"Underground lines are the best," said Al Arias, an FPL inspector who said his own home was still without power. "With all these hurricanes lately, the more lines we can get underground the better. But who is going to pay for it?"

In neighborhoods where power was restored quickly, there was celebrating. When the lights suddenly came back on in the suburb of Miami Lakes, several residents ran out of their back doors shouting, "We have power! We have power!"

In Miami's poorer neighborhoods, though, there was suspicion that the utility's restoration priorities would leave their homes in the dark for weeks.

Aristides Duran, a 41-year-old truck driver who lives in Overtown, said he is convinced his area will be among the last to get its power restored. Who would get power before him?

"The rich people," he said.

Not true, say state and utility officials. Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Colleen Castille said the top priority is to restore power to hospitals, acute care centers, law enforcement agencies and government buildings, then schools.

State Education Commissioner John Winn said damage to school roofs, air conditioning systems and portable classrooms was extensive.

With no electricity to power TVs and home computers, Winn urged parents to encourage their children to while away the hours reading.

* * *

The first trucks carrying ice and water arrived at the Orange Bowl at midday and by early afternoon a line stretched several blocks around the stadium.

Some people showed up toting folding chairs and accompanied by children riding bikes. Most took the two- to three-hour wait in good humor, chatting and having their photos taken with police officers, there to keep order.

Nature's own air conditioning - highs in the mid 70s - helped keep tempers in check.

"This weather is a blessing," said Agnes Howard.

Some of those in line had no complaints about being limited to six small bottles of water and one bag of ice per person.

"Anything is better than nothing," said Danny Rodriguez, 31, a sales manager at Macy's.

Rather than queue up for ice, 21-year-old Raul Arcia and his family stopped a passing ice cream van and put in their order.

"I've been doing this route for 21 years but business was never this good," joked Raul Lamelas, 57, owner of The One and Only ice-cream van.

There were big lines as well at home supply stores. A Home Depot in Hollywood sold out of generators by 9 a.m., as well as gas cans.

Store manager Joe Tomko said more supplies were on the way, but he couldn't say when. Without phone service he has no way to track the trucks.

Residents with generators soon learned that their problems were far from over. A 5,500-watt machine can use as much as 10 gallons of gas in a day.

"We have gas for two more days, and that's it," said Michelle Howery of Boca Raton. "We can't find it anywhere."

Although state officials say there is plenty of gas, most local gas stations don't have power to run their pumps.

"It's like having water to drink but not being able to get to it," said Jim Smith, president of the Florida Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association in Tallahassee.

AAA surveyed stations in Florida and found many struggling.

"Virtually all areas south of Melbourne on the east coast have little to no fuel or no power to pump the fuel. The one exception is the turnpike, where the lines are ridiculously long," said Gregg Laskoski, spokesman for AAA Auto Club South in Tampa.

A station on Federal Highway in Boynton Beach had a line that stretched 2 miles. In Florida City, a gas station manager got into shouting matches with people who tried to cut in line, so police shut the place down.

Surgical scrub tech Carlos Franco, 28, was dismayed to learn after a two-hour wait that the Miami station where he had stopped only accepted cash.

He had driven down from West Palm Beach in his Ford Expedition on Tuesday morning only to be told that the hospital where he works didn't need him.

"Now I don't have enough gas to get home," he said. "My big mistake was I forgot to get cash before Wilma arrived. Only cash talks in this kind of situation."

Even as South Florida picks up the pieces from Wilma, state meteorologist Ben Nelson said a tropical wave forming in the south Caribbean could grow into yet another hurricane.

After delivering that news to storm-weary state officials in Tallahassee, Nelson said: "I'm going to get out of here before somebody kills me."

Times staff writer Tamara Lush contributed to this report, which also used information from the Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and Associated Press.